PDF creature still haunts NZ government sites

A number of government agency Web sites are still not fullycompliant with accessibility guidelines and are unlikely to be sountil at least the latter half of this year, but the New ZealandState Services Commission is already revising its guidelines.

quot;To reflect recent changes to internet technology across-agency team will begin a comprehensive review of theguidelines,” says an SSC statement issued last week. A draftconsultation paper will be issued in September, and the revision isplanned to be complete by December, at which point the newguidelines will become mandatory for government agencies.

Subsequent to the issuing of the original guidelines, “browsershave matured,” says Edwin Bruce, the SSC’s manager of e-governmentprojects. Sites are placing a heavier emphasis on transactions,which are not fully covered in the current version of thestandards.

“I suppose we were a little optimistic” in imposing a compliancedeadline of January 1 this year, Bruce says. It is reasonable notto expect agencies to disrupt existing development plans which mayhave been plotted to last as long as 18 months, he says.Nevertheless a survey of sites done for the Office for DisabilityIssues in mid-2005 found significant progress in making sitesaccessible.

As expected, some organizations have been given exemptions fromsome aspects of compliance. These include Land Information NZ withapproval to use nonstandard formats for map images and the NationalLibrary, which can use non-HTML formats on content that it did notproduce and to which it does not own the copyright.

Coincidentally, last week saw Linz notify solicitors and surveyorsthat it would require all of them to use its electronic channelLandonline to lodge all transactions by July 2008. Disabilityactivists have questioned how disabled solicitors might comply withthis requirement in the face of incomplete compliance with theguidelines at Linz.

The Army has an exemption for its Force9 online game site, as it isaimed at a “specialist audience”, potential Army recruits.

An “umbrella” exemption has also been granted for sites which usePDF documents which will be difficult to convert to HTML. Agenciesoperating such sites will have to provide an HTML paragraphdescribing “the key messages” of the PDF document.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has called PDFs “The Creature fromthe Black Lagoon” and pronounced them “unfit for humanconsumption”.

Although accessibility is often thought of as a problem fordisabled people, Bruce points out that over-elaborate websites andthose demanding nonstandard plug-ins can “disable” mainstream userswith basic browsers or a low-speed connection to the internet. Mostpeople, more-over, develop some kind of disability affecting webuse with age, he says. Disability activists are also strong on thispoint, often referring to the general population as “thetemporarily able-bodied”.