Yesterday evening (22 June 2011) I visited the website of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with the intention of submitting a request, under the Freedom of Information Act regarding representations, by the FCO, to the Chinese authorities on animal welfare in China. I am particularly interested in any contacts pertaining to the killing and eating of dogs.
I clicked on the relevant contact form, composed my message and then my heart sank … I was faced by a CAPTCHA which my screen reading software (JAWS) is not able to interpret. For those of you who do not know what a CAPTCHA is, they are visual images/representations which must be solved prior to a web user being able to perform functions such as contacting an organisation. There purpose is to prevent websites from being bombarded with spam (junk mail) by automated bots which crawl the World Wide Web. The problem with CAPTCHAS, as mentioned above is that they are wholly inaccessible to users of access software such as JAWS.
In this case there was an audio version of the CAPTCHA availible on which I, as a blind person duly clicked only to be faced with a quantity of white noise and an unintelligible representation of the CAPTCHA. Not being able to solve the dratted CAPTCHA I called on the assistance of my wife who is fully sighted, however after several attempts at solving the CAPTCHA she, also gave up and I was, as a consequence unable to submit my Freedom of Information Act enquiry.
Being a persistent sort of a person I found the email address of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague MP and emailed him detailing both the website accessibility issues which I’d faced together with my Freedom of Information request concerning animal welfare in China. It will be interesting to see what response my email elicits.
Most government websites do not employ CAPTCHA technology and I was extremely surprised and disappointed to discover that the FCO’s site utilises such technology. In effect organisations who use such CAPTCHAS are making it difficult (sometimes impossible) for people with sight impairments to contact them. Even when audio CAPTCHA works correctly it is still wholly inaccessible to people who are both deaf and blind and should be avoided like the plague. Most government deartments have a contact form which does not employ CAPTCHA or, alternatively utilise a good old fashioned email link, I hope that the FCO will follow suit or it will continue to lock out disabled people.