Web Access for the Disabled

Does the internet require wheelchair ramps?

Justice says everyone should be able to use the web. So does the logic of making sales.

The USA Justice Department wants web masters to make their sites more accessible to those who are blind, deaf or otherwise disabled. Under Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, all US federal government agencies will have to make their sites accessible, as will anyone doing business with the US government, and as will many US state governments. Section 508 requires web sites be adjusted so disabled people can read them.

The US Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance people put together a committee to consider how to handle web access. They decided that streaming audio or or audio files be accompanied by simultaneous text, that streaming video be captioned, and that webmasters "provide at least one mode that does not require user vision", by formatting all information so it is compatible with braille and speech synthesis devices.

Web Access Tools

The proposed W3C guidelines are at www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/

There is a quick tips reference at the World Wide Web consortium www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/

The first requires web sites to supply text alternatives for all images and graphics (for blind readers). The second bars the use of colour to convey information unless explanatory text is also available (colour blind readers). Use of multiple languages on a single page is out (braille readers can't handle it). Discourage the use of tables and other formatting that makes it hard for disabled readers to follow the organisation of the page. Blinking, moving and scrolling and auto-updates should be able to be paused or stopped by users. Designers are asked to design all pages so they are "usable by people without mice, with small screens, low resolution screens, black and white screens, no screens, with only voice and text output, etc."

The W3C has a guide to getting started making a web site accessible. They recommend their fact sheet, and accessibility guidelines, point to evaluation tools, provide a checklist, and have on-line instruction and examples. www.w3.org/WAI/gettingstarted/

You can test sites using free software called Bobby from The Center for Applied Special Technology at Watchfire webxact.watchfire.com/

Reasons for Making Sites Accessible

Jupiter Communications did a survey in 2000, and say that by 2005, the 50 plus age group will be the largest user group on the internet. In the USA this will be 23 million people, more than any of the youth segments (children 14 million, teens 13 million, tertiary students 12 million). Search engines will have to change their ads to reflect the groups using them. "Sites that have poor colour contrast, especially with links, or that use smaller type, will be an irritation to older users", says Scott Williams of Australian internet directory Cowleys.

A Human Resources and Equal Opportunities Commission report warned disabled and older Australians were unable to access key services in telephone information services and ATMs. Extensive use of image maps and graphics stopped those using text to speech converters. Those suffering memory loss problems found telephone bill paying services difficult. Only 23% of those over 65 years used EFTPOS, while 78% of those between 18-24 years old used it. The report slammed government websites, which had serious accessibility barriers. The report suggests using W3C guidelines. www.hreoc.gov.au

Graeme Innes, Deputy Disability Discrimination Commission at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, made similar remarks. He also points out that many rural users have to access the web with images turned off because bandwidth is limited and download times slow. Commercial and government websites are subject to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. www.hreoc.gov.au

Tim Berners-Lee, designer of the World Wide Web, said "the power of the web is its universality."

Cynthia Waddell authored a report called The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation www.aasa.dshs.wa.gov/access/waddell.htm

Tim Noonan wrote About Accessible E-Commerce in Australia at www.bca.org.au/ecrep.htm

Resources for Plain Usable Sites

Jakob Nielsen does a wonderful site with many essays and hints at www.useit.com. I highly recommend reading his site (and check how his site code is written).

A checklist is available from W3C www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/full-checklist.html

The web accessibility initiative is at www.w3.org/WAI/

The Campaign for Anybrowser www.anybrowser.org

I hope you have enjoyed www.ericlindsay.com.