How to spread the net

2005: New media - Tom Armitage explains how public service websites could be made far more accessibl

Alongside photographs of David Blunkett's face in the papers over the past couple of months, there have been articles about everything from his relationship with Kimberly Quinn through his attitude to jury trials and on to his support for ID cards - but not one article about the rights of the blind.

The now former home secretary is just one among the more than 150,000 registered blind or partially sighted people in England alone. From 1 January 2005, they should all be able to obtain information from "public authority" websites just as easily as the sighted, as a result of the Freedom of Information Act coming into full force. The term "public authority" includes local and central government, as well as educational establishments. So, with time on his hands now, and as an outsider like the rest of us, how easy will Blunkett find it to navigate government websites?

His old department - which is now known as Education and Skills (www.dfes.gov.uk) - and the Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk) stand out as particularly good examples of sites that both partially sighted and fully sighted users would find it easy to use. Remarkably, however, it is quite tricky for a blind user to navigate the website for the Home Office itself (www.homeoffice.gov.uk). Perhaps Blunkett never needed to use it.

The internet ought to be a godsend for blind users, as its content is all stored digitally. There are many ways to translate content from one digital form to another (see box). Compare this to the conventional media, where though some books are translated into Braille or speech, and services such as Talking Newspapers supply publications spoken aloud on tape or CD (including the NS), it takes a good deal of extra effort to turn a print document into a Braille or CD version.

Yet, somewhere in the dotcom boom, web designers became hung up on stylish graphics, and the importance of textual content was diminished in the hierarchy of the page. As a result, sites became less accessible to the blind or partially sighted - unless these sites spent a great deal on creating special "text-only" versions of their pages at a later date. Sites with fewer resources, or tighter schedules, could only struggle to redesign; and so they remained inaccessible.

Accessibility is not an issue just for the totally blind; even the most minor visual impairment can render a web page inaccessible. For instance, one in 20 men is colour-blind; a site that uses graphics with the colours they find confusing could be entirely useless to them. Roughly a quarter of the UK population is short-sighted. While it is possible to change the text size on a web browser, some poorly coded sites refuse to respond, and their text stays tiny.

Even if users have no visual handicap, they may still face barriers. It will always be hard to navigate a confusing site layout; it will always be difficult to understand a poorly written site.

And, inexcusably, many sites are unusable over slow internet connections. Though broadband is growing, there were still only 7.5 such connections per 100 people in June 2004, according to Ofcom statistics. For now, websites should be designed for the lowest common denominator of access speed.

Accessibility in architecture is not just about placing ramps over every staircase and Braille over every button, but also about making signs clear and maps easily readable. Likewise, web accessibility is about more than swathing a site in options for multiple languages and speech synthesis. It is not just about helping the disabled to use the internet; it's about helping everyone to do so.

It takes time and money to redesign a website. Many government sites have had the budget and forethought to ensure that their sites be made accessible, but smaller public authorities - some county councils or schools, for instance - still have remarkably hard-to-use websites, for no other reason than that they lack the resources to update them. It remains to be seen what will happen to those in breach of the Freedom of Information Act. While they may be able to plead lack of resources if accused of failing to meet its requirements, it seems ridi-culous to have a law that won't be enforced.

The accessibility of public service websites is clearly going to be a major issue through 2005, and perhaps beyond, as more institutions move their services and information online. If Blunkett is looking for something to do, he could try becoming a poster-boy for a more accessible internet.

This year's NS New Media Awards include an Accessibility award. For more information, visit www.newstatesman.com/newmedia

Technologies that help the blind to navigate the internet

Braille display This device translates web pages into Braille, which it displays on an array of movable pins. Used in conjunction with a keyboard, it enables blind users to read and navigate web pages. Unfortunately, poorly designed websites are often unintelligible when translated into plain text, and so the Braille output could still prove difficult to understand.

Screen reader These read the web page on the screen aloud, using speech synthesis technology. Users can navigate through pages with the aid of a Braille keyboard. The screen readers are very explicit when they speak, which aids navigation. Unfortunately, when they read out websites that are poorly designed, with too much extraneous code, it is often still very difficult to understand them.

Browser plug-ins Whereas screen readers are complex pieces of software aimed at the blind, users with partial vision or reading difficulties can make use of browser "plug-ins", which read to the user whatever is under the mouse cursor. Websites must be specifically enabled for these to work.

Telephone It is even possible for partially sighted and blind users to access the web without a computer. PhoneAnything provides a service to websites that allows users to listen to content and navigate using an ordinary telephone.