The other day I received a comment (which I deleted) stating that my blog wasn’t compliant with Australian human rights legislation and that it wasn’t compatible with screenreaders (it certainly was with the ones that I’ve tested). What bothered me was the tone of the comment, an ostensibly threatening tone citing Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, rather than taking a conciliatory approach more clearly explaining the issues. That it came from a gmail account was warning enough. I suspected that this was a spam comment, though this one must have had a human behind it as it passed the CAPTCHA test. As it turns out, this was indeed another instance of spam, as it appears that it’s being sent to numerous other websites, with exactly the same wording, same name and apparently originates in the US. That’s by the by, as it does raise an interesting point and gave me an opportunity to investigate anti-discrimination legislation and discuss its real world applications and implications in our electronic age.
The Australian human rights legislation is intended to remove discriminatory practices that may affect the ability of those with disabilities from conducting activities and enjoying a lifestyle that people without disabilities take for granted. This applies not just to the physical world, but also to the virtual world of the internet. Now the point of the legislation is anti-discrimination, the elimination of deliberate action or inaction that can adversely affect an individual or group. The legislation is especially applicable to all government agencies and most businesses. Discrimination, under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), is defined by the Australian Human Rights Commission:
Discrimination happens when a person, or a group of people, is treated less favourably than another person or group because of their background or certain personal characteristics. This is known as ‘direct discrimination’.
Example: An employer refused to hire a suitably qualified person as a shop assistant because they were Aboriginal, and instead hired a less qualified person of a different racial background. This could be racial discrimination.
It is also discrimination when an unreasonable rule or policy applies to everyone but has the effect of disadvantaging some people because of a personal characteristic they share. This is known as ‘indirect discrimination’.
Example: A policy that says only full-time workers will be promoted could discriminate against women who are more likely to work part-time to accommodate their family responsibilities.
Discrimination can be against the law if it is based on a person’s:
- disability, or
- race, including colour, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status
- sex, pregnancy, marital or relationship status, family responsibilities or breastfeeding
- sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
Now if the DDA were to rigidly apply to every website accessible in Australia and be similarly enforced, it would pose an impost of such magnitude that the vast majority of websites would close overnight. The reality is that most websites, especially blogs such as mine, are produced on content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Wix or Squarespace and used by non-technical people to allow them to produce websites usually for non-commercial purposes. But even those who conduct some form of online commerce use these platforms because they are designed for non-technically savvy users. As all of these platforms are developed overseas, ostensibly in the US, whether or not any consideration is given to Australia’s DDA is unknown. The platforms certainly try to be as viewer and device friendly as possible, but it’s often impossible to accommodate everyone. A easy way to check if a website is compliant is with an available service recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which is called the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE). This is the performance report for my site; not perfect, but not too bad overall:
So it was of some interest to see how well those websites that must comply with the DDA performed. The first that I tested were government departments or government funded departments. So I began with the highest ranking government department, the Parliament of Australia to see how it fared. Surely as the pinnacle of Australian government websites, it would pass with flying colours. I then had a look at the Australian Human Rights Commission which, given it’s charter, should be squeaky clean when it comes to a DDA friendly website. Then how about the Australian government information services website? Or Australia Post? You’d think these would be shining examples of accessibility perfection; but they’re not so perfect after all. The Australia Post website initially wouldn’t even load, showing a warning that there was a problem. So I wonder how many government departments actually test their websites with WAVE?
Then I had a look at some of our political parties. I chose three in no particular order. The ALP website wouldn’t load until I clicked on the ‘OK’ dialogue box; there was no indication what had failed and caused the site not to load. After clicking OK, the site loaded, but didn’t look all that good; fair go indeed. Next was the LNP website, which loaded OK and surprisingly with only one error. Then I tried the Greens website, which wasn’t as good, but no where near as bad as the ALP website.
And how about news sites? The ABC being a fully government funded entity clearly should have all of its ducks in a row. But what about other news sites that are privately owned such as The Age or the Herald Sun? The ABC came up with plenty of errors and The Age didn’t even load. The Herald Sun didn’t load either and this is indicative of another issue with this and its affiliated sites where you must enable obtrusive cookies to even access the website. I checked their browser cookie installation status once and the Herald Sun and sister sites loaded over 30 cookies (including tracking cookies) every visit, and this was just to one site. You have to wonder why.
And how about some of the major websites used by just about everyone? I’m not on Facebook, so I can’t show anything on this and the Facebook landing page is nothing more than a logon page. But how about YouTube? This one took me aback considerably, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wondered how anyone relying on special systems to view websites would cope with YouTube given the status reported by WAVE. But I was surprised by the Google landing page and especially a search results page (disability discrimination act search request); whether this is what anyone using special systems sees I have no idea.
Another group of organisations that are required to comply with the DDA are banks, though they certainly don’t shine in the tests results. You can judge the results for yourself. They don’t look all that good and, again, how they fare in normal use is anyone’s guess.
I could keep going on with more examples, but you can do this for yourself if you wish. However, it’s clear that the DDA is a complex requirement and not easy to comply with, regardless of the resources at hand. But what is surprising is that websites, like mine, exhibit far fewer issues that websites developed at great expense and ostensibly hand built, rather than with freely available CMS platforms (though some do use the enterprise version of WordPress). The thing is that the internet is such a complex and ever changing place technologically, that attempts to enforce things like the DDA can become a monumental and often impossible to comply with effort. The only way that full compliance could be achieved is by making websites purely text based, making them rather boring and uninformative in many instances; a return to the earliest days of websites.