A report published earlier this year looking at website accessibility claimed that the UK's 10 most widely read newspaper websites are 'effectively barring millions of disabled people from obtaining up-to-date information' by failing to meet minimum standards.
AbilityNet, a charity that helps disabled people with their ICT needs, published its second State of the eNation report, detailing how it believed the online editions of those leading papers had failed to meet the criteria it claimed was required to facilitate access for users with visual impairment, dyslexia or a physical disability.
A Disability Rights Commission (DRC) review of 1,000 websites in 2004 found that 81 per cent failed to meet even the most basic standards of accessibility for the disabled.
In many cases, it seems, instead of liberating disabled people by providing greater access to news than ever before, the internet is proving as limiting a medium as the printed page.
Journalism.co.uk decided to conduct its own, first-hand assessment by asking members of the blind and visually impaired community to give us their views on the accessibility and ease of use of the websites of several leading UK newspaper websites.
Over the course of the next week Journalism.co.uk will publish the findings from its assessments of:
The Daily Telegraph
The Daily Mail
To conduct the study, Journalism.co.uk enlisted the help of retired research worker John Allnutt, whose bilateral retina blastoma rendered him blind for most of his life.
In addition to John's assessment, pupils from Dorton College of Further Education provided a further perspective.
(Read full profiles of our volunteers.)
The intention of the study was to evaluate what impact new media is having - positive and negative - on those with a keen interest in the news but an impairment that prevents them accessing it in a way millions of other Britons take for granted.
Despite the obvious benefits for users, good accessibility has advantages for publishers, including higher ranking and more matches from search engines, which can more accurately index the content.
Yet these benefits are overlooked by many of the UK's major newspapers in their online strategies. Our study found that only the Guardian and the Daily Mail have sections dedicated to accessibility on their sites. In addition, no newspaper site has yet earned an RNIB 'See It Right' logo, awarded for excellence in this area.
Usability experts told Journalism.co.uk that blind and visually impaired users tend to approach news sites in an inefficient way, persevering with the difficulties they find and working out 'best fit' ways to surf. We wanted to test this theory and see what other problems arose.
We took advice from behavioural research consultancy Bunnyfoot on the common difficulties visually impaired and blind users faced when interacting with websites and advised us on the criteria for our test.
Accordingly, we asked users for their general impressions of each site, then to attempt to access the lead story and then navigate to a news story of interest to them away from the home page.
We then asked them to locate and play a piece of audio or video, use the search function to track down a story, find the blogs or user-interaction sections - and interact with them, and locate the accessibility section.
To conclude our study of each newspaper site, we asked an expert on accessible design to comment on our findings and the paper in question to also respond.