On July 26, the United States celebrated the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This sweeping legislation, signed by President George Bush, gave people with disabilities the right to reasonable access to the rest of society. This meant curb cuts, sign language interpreters at public events, and equal opportunity in the workplace.
In 1990 (the year the ADA passed) Tim Berners-Lee invented the first World Wide Web software. There were fewer than 600,000 Internet hosts and not a single web site. The phrase “surfing the Net” was still two years away. And the NCSA’s web browser “Mosaic” was still just a twinkle in Marc Andreessen’s eye.
How far we have come. But what kind of progress have we made to ensure the 54 million Americans with disabilities have had equal access to and opportunity in the new economy?
In timing with the 10th anniversary of the ADA, the National Federation of the Blind agreed to drop a lawsuit that charged AOL of violating the ADA. In return, AOL will make its 6.0 software due this fall compatible with programs the blind use to convert digital information to speech or Braille. It only took them 15 years and a lawsuit to come around.
What Does This Have to Do With Me?
Good question. You already have to think about making your site usable for people with varying connectivity speeds and viewing devices, from broadband to wireless. You have to think about international users and their language needs. You have to be sure your site is secure for transactions and your users trust you not to sell their names to spammers.
There is something quite satisfying about developing a site that can be used by all. It’s the foundation of the Internet. It’s the stuff that tore down a modern Tower of Babel, making our once-incompatible computer systems and proprietary online services interoperable, thus creating something much more valuable than the sum of its parts.
But making your site accessible to all is not just about feeling good. It makes solid business sense. After all, we are talking about 54 million potential users who may be shut out of your site.
Microsoft has figured this out. Aside from its community involvement through employee volunteer programs and grants to non-profit organizations, Microsoft has made accessibility a priority in its development.
Microsoft has been implementing universal design and accessible design over the past 12 years, which has led to the wide range of features in Microsoft products that make them easier to use for people with disabilities. Microsoft’s Assistive Technology Group works closely with product developers and disability advocates to ensure that accessibility features are included in Microsoft’s most popular products, such as the Encarta multimedia encyclopedia, Windows 2000, Windows 98, Office 2000 and the Internet Explorer feature in Windows.
Accessibility Is More Than Accommodating Visually-Impaired Users
The issues regarding accessibility for the visually impaired parallel the requirements for ensuring that your web site is viewable and navigable from the widest variety of web clients.
“So even though a business may not think of how a blind user would navigate their site,” says T.V. Raman, a senior computer scientist with Adobe Systems, “these same businesses are likely to be interested in ensuring that the information on their sites is usable both from desktop PCs equipped with a mouse and display running a fat browser as well as from mobile and hand-held devices that have drastically different display capabilities.”
Users, only some of whom are disabled, may not be able to access a web site for a variety of reasons:
- They may not be able to see, hear, or move, or may not be able to process some types of information easily or at all.
- They may have difficulty reading or comprehending text.
- They may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse.
- They may have a text-only screen, a small screen or a slow Internet connection.
- They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears or hands are busy or interfered with. (i.e., driving to work, working in a loud environment, etc.)
So as you consider how to make your site more accessible to those with disabilities, youll also be creating opportunities for whole groups of other people and therefore, potential customers to access and use your site.
In May 1999, the advisory body for the web, the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, issued a paper and guidelines for designing sites that are accessible to people with disabilities.
They developed a checklist for web site authors and developers to follow.
Design Tips for Accessibility
Here are a few things to consider if you plan to make your site accessible.
- Visually-impaired people use screen readers to read Braille or text-to-speech browsers. They frequently use a text-based browser. These browsers don’t read formatting like tables. Instead they read one line at a time, across the whole page. Try reading this page like that. For example, you might find content at the bottom of a page (when viewed in a browser) appears before content in the top right corner.
- Obviously if a user has a text-only browser, all those fancy graphics aren’t going to be of any use. Be sure to have an “alt” text tag on your graphics. Basically, this means there will be text there instead of the graphic so the person knows what is there. This is especially important if you have graphics as links to other content. International users who access your site over slower connections will also appreciate this, as they may turn off images in their browsers for improved performance.
- Remember that visually impaired users don’t necessarily use text readers. Many visually impaired users may use highly magnified glasses to read computer screens. For these people, it’s important to make the text readable. Be sure there is enough contrast between the text and the background.
- In an effort to control placement of text and graphics, graphic designers sometimes use a “single pixel GIF trick” to create spacing. These can severely interfere with a page’s readability. However, if done properly for example, by embedding navigation information in the image’s “alt” tag they can even enhance a visually-impaired user’s experience.
Bobby is a web-based tool that analyzes web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities
Microsoft offers guidelines for developers, writers, and designers of web pages.
Entitled titled “Special Needs Systems,” this site includes features such as a checklist for web accessibility, information about the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), tools for web accessibility, and links to additional resources.
The HTML Writers Guild
The introduction, designed for new web authors, fully describes each principle before presenting technical information.
The Alliance for Technology Access
This site includes an informative discussion about providing access for people who encounter vision, hearing, learning, or cognitive barriers at web sites.