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Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, all organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments to their systems to allow people with disabilities to access them. The final provisions of the Act will come into force in October 2004.
To comply with the Act, the Office of the E-Envoy recommends that government websites meet the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) level A standard specified by the World Wide Web Consortium. Medway Council plans to meet level A conformance by May 2004.
Sean Hale, the council's web manager, said, "There is also an ongoing compliancy programme for Medway to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. Ninety five per cent of the site conforms to WAI level A today. We have a few internal databases to change."
Hale also plans to ensure accessibility is maintained whenever the council purchases new software. To this end, Medway Council issued an accessibility statement on its website which said, "Vendors supplying software used to develop our site will be required to provide information by May 2005 on conformance to W3C/WAI's authoring tool accessibility guidelines 1.0, conformance level A."
The project began a year ago, following consultation with local people with visual impairments. Hale said, "We realised assistive software could not cope well with the frames that we used on our old site and presented accessibility barriers. We found we needed to focus more on the accessible content of the site than the branding."
The project also involved hiring a web designer with experience of building accessible websites to create mock-up sites that the council could show to the focus groups and test.
The site was built using the Ixos Obtree C4 content management system and supports XHTML, which Hale said would allow the council to meet part of the requirements of the e-government interoperability framework.
Along with testing how the website coped with popular accessibility software such as Windows Eyes and Jaws screen readers and IBM's voice browser, Hale used the Bobby software from Watchfire to test the site for accessibility compliance against the WAI specification.
Further developments on Medway Council's website include a community portal and an electronic complaints form, both of which will be rolled out this month. In September, the council will roll out online payment services for council tax, business rates and parking fines.