Putting Curb Cuts and Wider Doors on the Internet: Toward Web Site Accessibility
Several years ago I was taking a few courses at the local university. At the same time several university courses were being offered online for the first time. One of the professors happened to ask whether the university’s online course offerings and the Internet in general were accessible to students with disabilities. Now, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that despite the fact that I work with students who have disabilities and am myself disabled I had not given the matter a great deal of thought. In spite of my disability I can type about seventy words per minute and my vision is not too bad, so I had not had much first hand experience with some of the specialized hardware and software that’s available. My first reaction was that with the wide variety of hardware and software available to make a computer more accessible it would have to be the user’s responsibility to assure that the necessary hardware and software were installed and properly configured. After all, how could a content provider know what modifications an individual user with a disability might need?
Now, as any of my friends will gladly attest, I hate not knowing the answer to a question. There were, as I saw it, two options open to me: make up an answer or find the correct answer. Since making up answers, which often turn out to be wrong, can prove to be embarrassing, I decided to crawl into the mad scientist’s laboratory and find some semblance of an answer. After several days of searching I knew two things: there were indeed several barriers that might prevent users with disabilities from effectively accessing the Internet, and there were many things that content providers could do to reduce or eliminate these barriers. Follow me into the laboratory we will take a very brief look at steps that can be taken to create accessible content.
Before we begin our quest in earnest, a quick caveat is in order. This article will provide only the briefest description of the hardware and software available to die-hard Mac enthusiasts who happen to be disabled. There may not be as many options as many in the Mac community would like, but there are some options available. If you are interested in that side of this issue TidBITS has published several articles addressing this topic. Readers interested in a platform-independent discussion of accessibility will find many useful references addressing this topic. Now, let’s begin our journey.
Behind the Scenes
Obviously, there is no way to list each of the disabling conditions that might affect someone’s ability to effectively use computers. There is no single accessibility solution that covers the needs of every user with a disability. Instead let’s look at some general groups of disabling conditions and the types of resources that might make computer use a little less difficult.
Generally speaking, motor disabilities affect the user’s ability to execute the movements needed control their environment. Motor-based disabilities such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, generally impact the speed, accuracy, or endurance of muscle movements. The next time you are in the mood for a little frustration, try typing using arms and hands that don’t go where you want them to go when you want them to go there. And if that weren’t enough, what’s to be done about keyboard shortcuts triggered by simultaneous activation of multiple keys? How many times a day have you use Command-C rather than use the mouse to choose Copy from the Edit menu?
There are a number of options available to assist computer users who experience these difficulties. Keyboards with larger keys or alternative layouts often make typing easier. Users with severe motor difficulties may find it necessary to use specialized switches to control computers or other objects in their environment. The goal here is to find some body part that the user has reliable control over and use that movement in conjunction with the right switches and software to control the computer. Long-time Mac enthusiasts will remember the sticky keys section of the Easy Access control panel included in Mac OS 7 through 9. This panel attempted to make it easier for users of adaptive switches to press multiple keys simultaneously. The functionality of sticky keys is now included in the Universal Access preference pane under OS X 10.2. Simply choose the Keyboard portion of the System Preferences panel to access these features.
For most users, computer-based activities are very visual. Even before the advent of multimedia-intensive Web sites, the computer screen was the primary means of conveying information. This can be quite a source of frustration for users with visual deficits, and is also a problem for users coping with dyslexia or a specific learning disability. The challenge in this case is to understand the meaning of the text that can be seen. What could be done to address this problem?
Some users are able to address their vision needs by simply reducing the resolution of their screens. Text and graphics look larger at 640 by 480 than they do at 800 by 600. Other users have found a need for additional magnification or a screen reader. Under Jaguar, screen magnification is controlled by the “Seeing” portion of the Universal Access preference pane. In OS 7 through to 9, the CloseView control panel attempted to address this need.
Magnifying screen output is a good idea, but is not much help in coping with dyslexia, complete blindness, or a specific learning disability. For situations such as these, enter the screen reader. The general idea of this type of software is to have a synthesized voice read screen content aloud. You can get some idea of how this works without any additional software. Launch either TextEdit or SimpleText. Both programs have the ability to read back text. In SimpleText choose Speak All from the Sound menu. In TextEdit go to the Edit menu and choose Speech. A sub menu allows you to start or stop the program reading the document to you. Screen readers behave similarly but also have the ability to describe a graphic if the ALT tag is used appropriately.
In this brief look at accessibility I did not discuss some other features built into the Mac OS such as Speakable Items or Talking Alerts. Apple maintains some general information about OS accessibility on its current Web site. There is also some information on the site about some of the literacy and learning software available.
Right about now you’re thinking, “I don’t have a disability. How does this affect me?” Well, I was just about to answer that question.
How Does This Affect Me?
From reading the previous section one can conclude that Apple devotees have a long history of addressing accessibility issues. There’s still a great deal to be done, but at least people are thinking about the issues. That’s as good a reason as any to address accessibility, but there are others. Let’s begin with the financial reasons to address Web site accessibility. There is nothing like a little enlightened self-interest for motivation.
The Web site Accessibility Initiative estimates that as much as 20 percent of some populations are disabled. Of that number an estimated eight to ten percent might benefit from efforts to make Web sites more accessible. The remainder of the document describes a variety of potential benefits that may accrue from accessible Web design. As this document suggests, designing an accessible Web site often results in increased search engine visibility, reduction in necessary bandwidth, and better usability for those with low-bandwidth connections.
In addition to these benefits, Kynn Bartlett reports that consumers with disabilities control more than 175 billion dollars of discretionary income. Even if, as the Web site Accessibility Initiative suggests, only eight to ten percent of the disabled population might benefit from access to accessible Web sites this is still a significant amount of money and a sizable customer base.
Bartlett’s observations concerning the amount of discretionary income available to consumers with disabilities is only one of several reasons that he gives for designing accessible Web sites. His list of reasons for accessible Web design includes avoiding lawsuits under Section 508 and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Passed by Congress in 1998, Section 508 requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. William Matthews, writing in the October 2, 2000 issue of Federal Computer Week, estimated that this ruling would affect 27 million federal government pages on the Internet.
Even if you are not one of the Web designers responsible for 27 million pages of federal government information, Internet accessibility requirements may still apply to your organization. At least as early as 1996, the United States Justice Department issued a policy ruling regarding Internet accessibility for persons with disabilities. This interpretation applies accessibility standards to businesses as well as government agencies. Statements from the U. S. Department of Education have placed similar requirements on educational institutions. A summary of these rulings has been written by Cynthia D. Waddell, JD.
It is unfortunate, however, that the same does not necessarily apply to private businesses. A recent decision by a United States court ruled that Southwest Airlines was not required to include access for the blind. US District Judge Patricia Seitz said that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to the Web. The plaintiff, a blind man, argued that the Southwest Web site was too difficult to navigate using his screen reading software.
If you are not in the United States, you should double-check your country’s legal requirements regarding accessible Web design. For example, Australian law requires that any Australian Web site—not just a business—must provide equal access.
Fixing the Problem
Now that we know what the problem is and to whom it applies, let’s get to work fixing it. It doesn’t take a mad scientist to design an accessible Web site, but it does take some planning. Since I don’t spend a lot of time building web sites I decided to ask for a little assistance from my wife at this point.
One of the first decisions to be made is whether to develop one accessible site, or build two separate sites—one of which is accessible, while the other is not. My belief is that for a new site, it is easiest to plan and maintain one Web site. Over the years I have seen several sites where the inaccessible version of the site contained current content but the accessible version contained information that was possibly outdated. If you choose to maintain two Web sites, place a link to the accessible version of the site near the top of the main page. With this arrangement, users with disabilities do not have to navigate an entire page of inaccessible content to get to the link that leads to your accessible site.
Now that you are ready to build the actual site, look for a design that can be easily navigated. Site organization should group together elements that are related. Buttons and menus should be easy to find, easy to use, and in consistent locations. This is, in essence, good site design for any site regardless of whether the user is disabled.
Another issue that contributes to the overall usability of a Web site is a lack of sufficient contrast between the background of the page and text that you want the user to read. A dark blue background with medium or light blue text is not likely to be legible to most users even if there is no disability present.
Until this point, we have examined some general site design issues that should apply to any site. Now let’s look at some specific types of content and how to make them accessible. Along the way you might find this developer’s checklist helpful.
Audio files can of course prove difficult for users with hearing impairments. One of the easiest ways to fix this problem is to include a link to a text file that provides a description of the audio file’s content. This is also a nice touch for anyone who does not want to wait for a sound file to load.
Video files can prove problematic for users with visual or hearing impairments. The simplest fix is to link to a text file describing the video content. The text file is almost always a faster download than the video and can be read by a screen reader.
Graphics have become an increasingly important element of most Web pages. Graphics that are part of the Web page should be marked with the ALT attribute of the IMG tag. Screen readers will recognize this tag and read the description indicated by the ALT text. Make sure that the text you use for this tag is descriptive. Tags which say ‘image1,’ ‘image2,’ etc. do not let visually impaired users know what information the graphic contains.
Tables should not, as a general rule, be used for formatting. Screen readers have difficulty reading this layout properly. Essentially the problem is that the screen reader reads from left to right without regard for the cell’s content. If you are going to use tables to present data, provide an alternate link to a summary of that data.
Frames are used by many sites for navigation. Under this arrangement, it is common to see the menu appearing in one frame and the content requested by the user appearing in another frame. Screen readers can have some difficulty with content in frames.
Here is one way to make use of frames that does not violate accessibility standards. The menu appears in one frame on the page, and content appears in another frame. This menu and content are, in reality, pages that are designed to be accessible. Users who can use the “regular” site see things in frames, while users who need accessible content can click on a link that goes directly to the menu page without using any frames. That menu page then links to the content pages. In essence both users get the same pages but users with disabilities do not have to cope with frames. You can use the NOFRAMES tag in HTML to help achieve this.
Scripting and applets can be difficult for many of the assistive technology devices to manage. Even without assistive devices installed, problems with scripting can bring a browser to its knees. Although I have heard that scripting can be made compatible with assistive devices, I have not explored this issue much up to this point. When in doubt, find an alternative to the scripting.
Portable Document Format (PDF) files have become a mainstay of the Internet. When I first examined this issue PDF documents were virtually inaccessible to screen readers. Newer versions of Acrobat Reader are somewhat more screen reader-aware when dealing with documents that were designed to be accessible, but they have less success with older PDF documents. Adobe has also maintained a Web site that will convert PDF documents into HTML or plain text.
Testing is of course an important part of any project. One way to test your site’s accessibility is to use Bobby. This site will present you with a report on the extent to which your site meets accessibility standards. Bobby is a little picky, though.
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Well, that should be enough to whet your appetite. As you design your site, keep in mind that there is a great deal of information out there to assist you. The Alliance for Technology Accessibility guidelines are a good place to start. I have also found that the Web Accessibility Initiative has extensive online resources regarding Web accessibility.
Also in This Series
- What Browsers Can Do, Part 2 · May 2007
- What Browsers Can Do · April 2007
- The Flip Side of the Coin · March 2007
- SeaMonkey 1.0.6 · December 2006
- PageSpinner 4.6.3: Quirky and Erratic · November 2006
- Nvu: Impressive and Powerful · October 2006
- RapidWeaver: A Useful Tool in Need of Sharpening · September 2006
- Sandvox: Sand in the Eyes · August 2006
- The Clayton’s Web · July 2006
- Complete Archive