Are Australia’s web developers failing to deliver accessible websites?

In a recent story in ITNews, Accessibility checker surfaces errors, John Hibbert claimed that a new Mental Health website,, operated by the National Health Call Centre Network and funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, didn’t meet the Australian Government’s minimum web standards.

Based on a review using the ACheck tool for the minimum WCAG 2.0 ‘A’ level of compliance, John reported that the checker:

highlighted two known problems, 245 “potential problems”, 20 HTML validation errors and 115 cascading style sheet problems on the site.

I tend to always take the results of these tools with a grain of salt. Many of the reported validation errors and style sheet issues are often repeats of one single issue, or are not really issues at all, and the two known problems would take a couple of minutes to fix and do not pose direct accessibility risks at all.

However this article does highlight a concern I’ve had for several years – whether Web Developers, contracted to produce these sites for government, always have the appropriate skills and knowledge to develop accessible websites.

I’ve seen this type of issue repeated a number of times. A policy or program area, possibly with support from a central communication or IT area, goes out to tender for a website. Web Developers respond, get assessed and the successful tenderer goes about creating the site.

A few months later the site is complete with days to spare before the Ministerial launch – but fails accessibility testing by the agency.

“We didn’t understand how important accessibility was to you” says the Web Developer. Note that I was in the room when these exact words were said to an agency by a reputable web developer regarding a website which was developed iteratively and we’d been giving them feedback about accessibility for a number of weeks.

So what happens next?

If accessibility was not explicit mentioned in the contract, the Web Developer asks for more cash to meet the requirement, even though it is a baseline requirement for all government websites across Australia, and says it won’t be ready for launch.

If an accessibility level was explicitly agreed to in the contract, the Web Developer grudgingly assigns a junior developer to ‘sort it out’ – with a vague promise that it will be done in a few weeks or months.

The agency is left having to launch a website which doesn’t meet the minimum and fix it as soon as possible afterwards – all because the Web Developer didn’t recognise and act on the legal requirement for accessibility.

Of course there’s many examples where Web Developers have done exceptional accessibility work for agencies, however I have seen and heard too many issues where professional Web Developers didn’t understand the accessibility requirements of governments.

Delivering an inaccessible website to a government agency will cause that agency to break the law and expose it to enormous risks of legal damages. No vendor should ever put their client in this type of position knowingly, particularly where it is so easily avoidable.

My view is that any Web Developer that doesn’t deliver a government website to at least the minimum accessible standards (unless otherwise explicitly agreed to by the agency in question) should not receive any payment until they have addressed all accessibility issues.

They should also lose their right to bid for other government business until they can prove they have fully trained their staff on accessible web design.

These may be harsh and strong measures, and I doubt they will be considered due to contractual and practical issues.

However if a vendor contracted to sell a government agency a car that turned out to not be street legal or rent them a building that turned out to not meet the building code, government would walk away without paying and ask for damages, plus be very cautious about working with that vendor again.

Why should it be any different with illegal websites?

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