Bruce Lawson's personal site

DTI: ‘Our blind guy can use it so it’s fine’

I got a letter from my MP about the questions I asked about the DTI website:

The project to launch a consistantly branded, usable website and implement a Content management System took place over a three year period. The requirement for the new website to comply with Level AA of the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines did appear in the original Invitation to Tender. It is regrettable that at the end of a long and complex phase of delivery of the project, this element was lost.

The Department does recognise the importance of ensuring our web content is accessible to all. We acknowledge that there are some accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit of the site has been commisioned, to identify where the site fails to comply with relevant standards. The recommendations will be used to ensure, subject to cost and available resources, the site meets Level A of the W3C’s WCAG as laid down in the guidlines for UK Government Websites as soon as practicable and Level AA in the longer term.

Despite the acknowledged accessibilty issues, we can confirm the new website is being used on a daily basis by a member of the DTI staff who uses the Supernova speech and magnification system (V6.5). This assistive technology does allow users with visual impairments to navigate the website and access the content of the pages. This demonstrates the new DTI website does not ‘lock-out’ all users with disabilities.

It’s a standard letter, identical to the one Jim Barter received from his MP.

I suppose it’s a result in one sense: the offending site will be audited, and made good (hopefully by someone who knows what they’re doing, which at least rules out the last supplier). So that’s a victory for accessibility.

But it’s something of a pyrrhic victory. The site will be significantly less accessible than if it had been designed that way from the beginning, as the original (ignored) spec required.

It’ll also be significantly more expensive, as the DTI are spending taxpayer’s money on this audit and elastoplast exercise. A private company would learn its lesson from the financial burden this places on them. The DTI don’t give a toss (ignore their absurd posturing about the cost of our Freedom Of Information requests) so it’s entirely plausible that they’ll commission rubbish and mis-manage their suppliers again in the future.

A blind staffer can use it – so it must be accessible!

There’s an interesting statement in the letter from the DTI:

The new website is being used on a daily basis by a member of the DTI staff who uses the Supernova speech and magnification system.

This is a false argument, of course; a staffer who knows the site very well is hardly a representative of the vast majority of visitors. The fact that we’re talking about people with disabilities doesn’t change that; disabled people are people and are not defined by their disability; they are not all the same.

It shows that the DTI top-brass regard their duty as merely “allowing” access; they haven’t thought about the accessibility of the site for a blind member of the public just surfing in for the first time, who doesn’t want to practice daily in order to accomplish their business with the DTI.

A similar argument to this is rumbling through the courts in the USA. Compare this with the NFB/ Target lawsuit. Target have found three screenreader users who say “we can use it, so it’s not inaccessible”, although Jim Thatcher’s declaration to the court suggests to me that it’s hardly doing its best to assist screenreader users who aren’t as proficient as Target’s stooges:

For example, because of missing alt-text on image map areas on the home page, more than 80 percent of the characters found by screen readers were gibberish, like “Ref equal sc underscore iw underscore l underscore 1 601 minus 9748238 minus 9274539? Percent 5 Fencoding equals UTF8 ampersand amp; node=3112881”. All these characters coming from href values of areas without alt-text are not only meaningless but agonizing to listen to. In addition, the numbers are spoken in full by a screen reader, like “nine million seven hundred and forty eight thousand two hundred and thirty eight.” (Source)

The DTI has the same attitude as Target. And it stinks that my government is as unaccommodating as a big yankee corporation.

But I’m tired of the fight now; the long hot summer has worn me out.

Why are you complaining? You’re not blind.

A guy called Charlie left a semi-hostile comment, saying

Have you received any comments or support from people who find the site difficult to use because it’s so inaccessible? … It seems as if the people who really get their nickers in a twist about this are not the people who use screen readers or who are visually impaired … So I just wondered if you’d had any contact from those that you, your co-conspiritor and many others, proport [sic] to be representing and fighting on behalf of?

A good point; no – I’ve had no emails from blind people who are aggrieved at being locked out of websites. This doesn’t mean that I have no right to complain, for a couple of reasons: the first is that I helped pay for this website, and it isn’t a good site. The second is that I help pay the salaries of the people at the DTI who took their eyes off the ball during procurement and supplier monitoring; as a concerned citizen, I have a right to complain about tax pounds being pissed away through ineptitude.

Then there’s the misconception that accessibility is only about the blind and only about screenreader users.

And finally, there’s the suggestion that blind people don’t complain because they don’t care, or they don’t use the Web. They do complain: I’m working with an organisation that are redesigning in consultation with some complainants, but generally they’re not listened to – or they’re heard, and then ignored, like the Target case or by people like Chris Beasley on the grounds that it makes economic sense to discriminate.

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20 Responses to “ DTI: ‘Our blind guy can use it so it’s fine’ ”

Comment by Isofarro


My MP forwarded through the reply he received from the DTI. Wording is identical to Jim Barter’s copy. (Although there was no name attached to who was the Duty Minister. The scrawled signature wasn’t readable


Comment by Rich Pedley

I like these bits:
“The requirement for the new website to comply with Level AA of the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines did appear in the original Invitation to Tender.”
“An accessibility audit of the site has been commisioned, to identify where the site fails to comply with relevant standards. The recommendations will be used to ensure, subject to cost and available resources, …”

If it was in the original contract then whoever designed the thing should have made sure it was accessible and should be told to go and fix it **At No Cost**.

But they actually state tender, not contract, which puts the ball back in DTI’s court. Including being liable for the blame!

Comment by Adam

Does rather beg the questions:

“what is the budget?”
“who will fix it?”
“define practicable”
“how does a requirement become an element and what is an element?”
“how exactly do you loose a requirement?”
“Do you consider that the daily use of Dolphin implies that your member of staff is using your site in the most efficient and usable way?”

I could go on however I think I have proven my point!

Oh dear.

Comment by Dan

The site is devoid of a single heading across it’s thousands of pages. For the average screenreader user that makes it at best a tedious trawl to navigate, especially within long pages. It’s a further illustration of how little they truly grasp the problem. >sigh<

Comment by Charlie Oates

Hold on now just a moment – my comment certainly wasn’t meant to be hostile, and I’m sorry that it was interpreted that way. I too am pissed off at the DTIs actions with regard to a) the new website, and b) their responses to your perfectly valid requests for information. I won’t even go into how much this has inconvenienced me personally.

My question was actually speculatively seeking an answer to an argument which I’ve heard bandied about in the last week or so – which is that it’s all very well website designers and the like complaining, but have there actually been complaints from people who’ve actually found the site hard to use because of the way it’s designed, rather than just having a beef with the poor design. Now I know it’s pretty much impossible to navigate and / or find anything, but I didn’t think it was unreasonable to ask if you’d had any contact or support from those who suffer from the afflictions that you’re (very validly) fighting on behalf of.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on further developments, and particularly on their disclosures about how much the audit and subsequent work will cost – but you’re not going to enamor people to your worthy cause if you have a go at people who ask perfectly valid and relevant questions. Jeeze…

Comment by bruce

Apologies then, Charlie. As I said above, your points were entirely valid, and I hope I responded to them satisfactorily in the main post. (My assumption of semi-hostility was due to your saying that my “nickers were in a twist” and asking if I’d had any contact from those I “proport” to represent (actually, I always go commando, and only ever represent myself).)

I beg your pardon for misinterpreting your tone.

Comment by Kevin

You have another reason to complain: If the law demands a certain level of adherence to accessibility guidelines, then that’s what should be done.

Comment by Henrik

@Charlie Oates: Absolutely fair question, but accessability isn’t rocket science.
1) Can it be navigated by a keyboard/other types of input.
2) Can the page be parsed to produce something meaningful, and perhaps even reflecting the full meaning.

It’s dead easy to spot how well a web-page performs in this regard. The big problem is that people mistake web design for graphic design. And in this case judging from the design companies web site, I wouldn’t even give them credit for the graphic skills. It looks like a site I did in ’98(I’m not a graphic designer)

Comment by Charlie Oates

You don’t have to tell me the site’s terrible – have a look at this page ( – it’s absolutely shockingly laid out. And some of the URLs are fantastic too – they go on forever, and have no meaningful name (just something related to the CMS, presumably).

Hopefully it will be improved, but I wouldn’t hold out too much hope. Virtually every political party is gunning for the DTI (or at least they were at the last election), so they’re bound to be under real pressures to cut costs etc. At least Ms Douglas has admitted that some big mistakes were made, but unless something gets raised by someone like the NAO (there’s a thought…) then I wouldn’t have thought anything will come of all this. I believe the industry refers to a “no blame culture”, but to me it seems like a “no accountability culture”.

Comment by bruce

I believe the industry refers to a “no blame culture”, but to me it seems like a “no accountability culture”.

Perfectly expressed! Hear hear!

Comment by Charlie Oates

Actually, I thought some more about what I wrote last night, and found this this afternoon (
Q. I am a member of the public and have concerns about the misuse of public monies, who do I contact?

A. Concerns regarding central government spending may come under our remit. Complaints should be addressed in writing to the Comptroller and Auditor General who will deal with the matter as appropriate:

Sir John Bourn
Comptroller and Auditor General
Private Office
National Audit Office
157-197 Buckingham Palace Road

Email Sir John Bourn through our enquiries desk (, please mark your email for his attention

Is this an avenue you’ve explored at all? Could be right up your street!

Comment by Charlie Oates

Apparently this isn’t a concern for the accessibility boys anymore – must have bigger fish to fry!

Comment by bruce

Unfortunately no bigger fish to fry, Charlie – just the flu! It’s an excellent suggestion, and I’m finalising a letter to Sir John Bourn, which I’ll post here.

Comment by Bruce

Here’s my letter to Sir John; no response as yet:

Dear Sir John,

I’m concerned about the waste of public money in commissioning and developing the new website for the Department of Trade and Industry. The initial brief was for a website that met the guidelines for making sites available for people with disabilities. However, the end result was a site that did not meet the DTI’s own brief, but when I asked for an explanation of hy this was so (under freedom of information legislation), I was told that I would not be given an answer as it would cost more than £600 to answer my questions.

So, £00,000 has been spent on a website that (arguably) contravenes the Disability Discrimination Act, did not meet the initial design briefs, and there is no method of discovering why this happened.

I am also surprised that the DTI has no method of examining its own processes to find out what went wrong, and I believe this to be negligent with public money.

Are you able to find out what has happened?

Comment by bruce

Got a reply to my mail to the national audit office:

Thank you for your email regarding the Department of Trade and Industry’s website. As the Director responsible for overseeing our value for money audit on the Department of Trade and Industry, Sir John Bourn has asked me to take this forward and let you have a reply. I thought I should let you know that we are currently making enquiries with the Department and will provide you with a response in the New Year.

Peter Gray,
Director, Trade and Industry Area (Value for Money Audit)

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