11 Jun 2009View Comments
Last week’s European elections were always going to be controversial – the current fury over MPs’ expenses claims saw to that. But elsewhere in the EU, it was the voting process itself that came under fire, with many arguing that new e-voting technology that is intended to empower citizens is actually alienating some.
Many European countries gave their citizens the option to use e-voting systems in the election. For its supporters, e-voting is seen as a means of making it easier for citizens to engage with the political process.
But according to European consumer lobby group ANEC, e-voting is not necessarily the inclusive means of engagement it first appears. Groups such as the elderly and those with visual impairments can be excluded from e-voting because their needs are not taken into account. As many as 10 per cent of voters could be excluded, says ANEC.
Furthermore, ANEC looked at the web sites of seven political parties taking part in the elections and found that none openly complied with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which provide a standard method for ensuring that all web users can access content.
The accessibility issues raised by ANEC are by no means unique to last week’s elections. In the UK, many organisations are still failing to provide universal access to their services, with the problem being particularly acute in the private sector.
According to a recent study by public sector IT body Socitm, there is evidence that local authorities are more attuned to meeting the needs of every section of the public than their private-sector counterparts.
Socitm examined the web sites of metropolitan, district and unitary councils in the UK, and of leading private-sector organisations such as Marks & Spencer, Norwich Union and the AA.
Nearly half of all council web sites offered a satisfactory level of accessibility – and of those 10 per cent were regarded as excellent. Of the private sector web sites Socitm assessed, a mere 16 per cent were satisfactory.
The problem of building accessible systems is particularly acute when it comes to the web.
The dynamic nature of web sites creates challenges for those seeking to be compliant with accessibility requirements, says Peter Abrahams, practice leader, accessibility and usability at analyst Bloor Research.
And while firms can use audits, automated tests, manual inspections and user testing to check for compliance, subsequent changes to web sites can quickly make them non-compliant.
“The continual flux of web sites means there is a need for continual compliance checking,” says Abrahams.
This need to ensure accessibility also extends to other technologies, such as client systems. And again, public bodies seem to be leading the way.
When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) began a major desktop refresh programme, employees’ specific requirements were high on the priority list.
Like all organisations, Defra has responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled staff. Indeed, central and local government bodies have further requirements placed on them by the Disability Equality Duty directive, which stipulates that they must incorporate their duty of care into all facets of organisational working, taking an active approach to disability equality, rather than making adjustments at the end of a process.
Consequently, for the Renew IT Desktop Programme – a pan-departmental rollout of Microsoft’s Vista operating system while simultaneously introducing new Lenovo X61 laptops to the majority of employees – the impact on disabled staff was considered at the outset.
Peter Barber, head of Defra’s business relationship management unit, says that bringing in external expertise played a crucial role in ensuring the programme progressed smoothly.
“The key was to ensure that neither access, productivity nor comfort were compromised during the process,” he says.
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