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The Future Writ Large

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is King – Proverb

I almost saw it coming but even I was surprised at the size of the expensive truck that has slammed into the government’s website plans.

According to a report in the eGov monitor, “More than three quarters of central government websites may need to be redesigned to avoid discriminating against disabled people”. Furthermore and “According to official estimates, around 800 public sector websites may need rebuilding to comply with accessibility laws requiring government services to cater for disabled citizens”.

This isn’t good news for any of us. Not only will the mandatory refit of so many websites cost the taxpayer only a little less than that of the military’s recent excursion to Iraq but it illustrates what a total mess the entire web accessibility programme has been as standards and compliance issues were ignored by the webmasters. There was nobody waving a big stick or even a white stick at websites which were inaccessible or ‘potentially exclusive’ of ‘challenged’ groups within the population.

At this point, I feel the shadow of political correctness falling over me but I’m glad to say this is Computer Weekly and not The Guardian. I had a look at a website project last week, which had received over £100,000 of funding to develop a look and feel which was accessible. To me and without my spectacles on, it looked as if my eight year old had been trying to design an optician’s sight test with a copy of Word. It was absolutely awful. Worse still, how in heaven’s name, could the company, which will remain nameless, justify a six figure sum to produce what looked like an original Netscape 1.0 Web page of circa 1995?

Therein lies the problem. You and I rather like interesting and colourful web pages and so do the webmasters but last year’s 'Guidelines for UK Government Websites', published by the Office of the e-Envoy, reminds the public sector that accessibility is a fundamental consideration in web design. In future, government contracts will demand that companies deliver websites that conform to international web accessibility standards or at least meet the approval of David Blunkett’s Labrador, Sadie.

There’s talk of a “a massive shift of mindset within both government and industry to turn theory into practice” and the “problem is finding the people qualified to influence and implement these changes”. It now looks as if the Office of the e-Envoy may have to ride shotgun on the argument over what is to become ‘correct’ web design practise from now on but one wonders what government services may suffer because of the substantial web re-design bill that faces them.

As for what the new generation of public sector websites will look like, I wouldn’t like to guess but using certain fonts may one day be illegal and every home page may yet have to carry an approved and accessible likeness of the President, ours or theirs.


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