PAS 78: Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites was commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), the independent statutory body that exists to monitor the effectiveness of Britain's disability legislation. It is primarily for non-technical readers who instruct others to build websites. It highlights, among other things, the need for an accessibility policy and for testing by people with disabilities, not just software. (You can read more about the content of PAS 78 in our previous story, How to commission an accessible website.)
The guide's pedigree is excellent: it is result of many months' work by highly-respected accessibility experts working under the auspices of BSI. And the DRC's sponsorship could bestow an authority on this evidence of best practice in any court that has to consider whether an organisation's website complies with the UK's Disability Discrimination Act.
The 56-page document was published by BSI and initially sold for £30 plus VAT. That price was the result of negotiation – most BSI guidance costs more than £100 per copy; but also the subject of criticism from those who thought it should be free.
The fee is a barrier to raising awareness of an important document, readers told OUT-LAW in March when PAS 78 was published. One developer, Jake Liddell of FourHats, pointed out that it was not just some individuals who could not justify paying £30 for the guide. Established web companies would buy a copy or two; but they would be unlikely to distribute copies to potential clients because it would quickly become too expensive. That would limit the effectiveness of PAS 78, he argued.
In response to such criticism, the DRC bought a licence from BSI that allows it to distribute PDF copies of PAS 78 without charge.
DRC spokeswoman Alyson Rose said that BSI owned the copyright from the start. "We had to charge. We had no choice in the matter and we were under pressure to get the document out," she told OUT-LAW. While the DRC always offers its own guidance free of charge, Rose pointed out that it did not have the right to give away the BSI's guidance. Could it have been negotiated from the start? "Perhaps if we'd had more time," said Rose.
BSI is not a government body; it is a company in the business of publishing guidance. It has to make a profit. BSI spokesman Jonathan Mason told OUT-LAW that this is the second time that the BSI has agreed to a licencing agreement for free distribution – the last deal being struck with the DTI (for last year's PAS 71, which encourages the use of a common vocabulary for nanoparticle technologies).
The fee paid by the DRC for the licence is confidential but the document now appears to be finding a much bigger audience.
Since launch on 8th March, 593 copies of PAS 78 have been sold, according to figures provided by BSI today. It became free from the DRC's website on 29th June. Within one week, 1,595 copies had been downloaded, according to the DRC. The total downloads to date are unknown.
The licence is not perpetual: it will last for 15 months (until late September 2007) or until the end of the life of the DRC, whichever is the longer. These events are likely to coincide: the DRC will be dissolved and its functions rolled into a new Commission on Equality and Human Rights, scheduled to launch in October 2007. Thereafter, it is up to the BSI to decide what to do. By then, PAS 78 will be close to its first review deadline of March 2008.
RNIB welcomed the move to distribute PAS 78 free of charge. Julie Howell, RNIB's Digital Policy Development Manager, said: "RNIB is delighted. Not only businesses but also those who advocate accessibility – individual web designers and increasing numbers of disabled people – are now able to read it and tell others about it."
Howell was the technical author of PAS 78. She wrote the first draft which was submitted for comment to a Steering Group (represented by DRC, Abilitynet, BBC, Cabinet Office, IBM, Tesco.com, University College London and the Usability Professionals Association) and then a Review Panel (represented by over 120 others).
"Before it became free, we publicised it as much as possible to make people aware of it," said Howell. "Now that it's free, more will be talking about it, recommending it to other people and hopefully it will lead to better practice in this area.
The need for what became PAS 78 was identified in a DRC report of 2004 based on its accessibility review of 1,000 UK websites which found 81% of sites failing on automated tests to reach a minimum standard. There were many other recommendations in that report, including a call to the Government to raise awareness of the need for web accessibility and develop a formal accreditation process. But these calls remain unanswered and the DRC considers itself powerless to change that. "We can't really do any more than we have done," said Alyson Rose.
Howell is hopeful that the Government will do more to convey the message about the need for web accessibility. Reaching big businesses is now relatively easy, she says; it is much harder to educate smaller organisations.
Howell points out that the Government has just spent £5 million promoting local council websites in a campaign that reminds people where to check for details of when their bins will be emptied. "Put [web accessibility] in a radio advert," she suggests. "That's not difficult. It's a small ask to get a couple of million to promote this cause."