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E-BUSINESS : Disability proves no obstacle to Labour's site.

The Labour Party is practising what it preaches in terms of website accessibility, according to national computing and disability charity AbilityNet.

The Warwick-based charity's seventh quarterly eNation assessment of websites in selected sectors has awarded the Labour's website a four-star rating - the first time that any site featured in the survey series has gained such a high score.

Only two other sites - the Conservative Party and the SNP - evaluated for both usability and accessibility with a programme of both manual checks and automated tools, achieved the minimum three-stars required to meet the needs of visitors with a vision impairment, dyslexia or physical problem making mouse use difficult.

All the sites reviewed were invited to make a public commitment to accessibility and to date, only the Labour Party, the Conservatives, the SNP and the LibDems have done so. The remaining six parties: Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the UKIP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Union Party did not respond and intriguingly, the same parties also fell short of basic accessibility criteria, with a mere two stars ranking (and a single star in the case of the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party).

The Government's recently published Digital Strategy acknowledges the evidence of a 'digital divide'. This tendency to exclude is exemplified in the 'barriers to accessibility' exhibited by some websites preventing disabled people from benefiting from the 'potential to improve quality of life' offered by ICT and the internet.

The strategy points out that websites, just like other suppliers of services or information, are required to take 'reasonable steps' to ensure accessibility under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Government also promises to ensure that all its websites and online services present no barriers to use for those with disabilities and pledges to take a lead in promoting action and raising awareness of this issue within the EU when it assumes presidency later this year. Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet's web consultancy manager, himself blind, said: 'For the millions of people with a disability or dyslexia considering their electoral choices this spring, the presence of party information online may fulfil a crucial role in the decision making process.

'Whilst no site would knowingly impose a 'technological lock-out' on its disabled visitors, it is clear that there is still much scope for improvement for many of the parties reviewed in this survey.

'The Labour Party is to be congratulated for setting a precedent for its rivals and we look forward to seeing the Government's Digital Strategy promoting best practice in future website development.'

In the UK an estimated two million people have a vision impairment, some 1.5 million have cognitive difficulties, a further 3.4 million have a disability which prevents them using the standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up with ease, around six million are dyslexic and many millions experience literacy difficulties, not to mention the increasing number of elderly 'silver surfers' with failing eyesight or arthritis.

Mr Christopherson added: 'We are now beginning to see examples of highly professional and accessible sites that prove incontrovertibly that an organisation's website can and should be accessible to the broadest audience possible. 'The Disability Rights Commission shows that able-bodied visitors also benefit from accessible websites, finding them easier and quicker to use by a highly significant factor of 35 per cent. 'When we visit a website we are seeking critical functionality - namely speed and efficiency - not a life-changing experience. Accessible sites are simply easier and more intuitive to use: they improve productivity for everyone Full report on:
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 19, 2005
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