Accessibility Breakthroughs Broaden Web Horizons

By Mike Martin
NewsFactor Network
September 17, 2002
http://sci.newsfactor.com/perl/story/19417.html


"Our excitement at what a new Web site might offer is tinged with the very real fear it will not work," said Gary Wunder, president of the Missouri chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
Personability, adaptability, scalability, reliability, portability. A lot of Internet technology buzzwords have a common root -- "ability" -- that may seem ironic to one wave of Web surfers because of a glaring omission. People with disabilities advocate buzzword status for "accessibility," a routine concept in the world of brick-and-mortar that is still catching on online.
"Web site accessibility means how easily your Web site can be read by people using other ways of navigating the Web, usually because they have a disability that restricts them from using more common ways," University of Missouri Internet accessibility expert Dr. Scott Standifer told NewsFactor.



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It's the Law
E-commerce sites in search of customers are well advised to be accessible. "Surveys of Web users in the late nineties showed 8 percent of respondents indicated a disability of some kind," author Kynn Bartlett, director of the HTML Writer's Guild Aware Center for Web Accessibility, told NewsFactor. "In the U.S., it is estimated that around 20 percent of the population has some disability."

An accessible Internet "is the law of the land," Web designer and accessibility consultant Mike Paciello said. Although "federal and international standards mandate it, Web accessibility not only improves user interaction and utility for people with disabilities," he told NewsFactor, "but it almost invariably has the same effect on users without disabilities."

Savvy Software for Better Browsing

To navigate the Internet via "other ways," persons with disabilities use so-called "accommodation software" that can read and navigate basic ASCII and HTML text. While a blind person, for instance, would not need a computer screen, "they would need a program called a screen reader, which translates the text on screen into spoken language -- much like the synthesized voice that physicist Stephen Hawking uses," Standifer said.

"A person with a motor control disability, such as multiple sclerosis, might not be able to use a keyboard or mouse," he added, "but would need a microphone plus speech recognition software to 'talk' the mouse around the screen and dictate text." Other recent innovations include a computer mouse for the blind and a wearable computer for the vision impaired.

Sticky Keys, Speech Recognition

While brick-and-mortar accessibility can be expensive to undertake, several tools for virtual accessibility are already built into most PCs, Standifer said. For people unable to use a mouse, menu commands are available through the keyboard, "and a feature called 'sticky-keys' lets you push two keys sequentially -- rather than together -- in case you have to type with one finger," he explained.

Standard PC features also include screen enlargement, and "the XP version of Microsoft Office reportedly has a simple speech recognition feature built into it, so you can speak commands and dictate to your computer," Standifer noted, adding that Apple, Microsoft and IBM remain proactive in the development of computer accessibility tools.

Validate Your Accessibility

Web designers who want to build and maintain accessible Web sites can access inexpensive -- even free -- applications. A variety of programs lets users check their Web sites for accessibility by scanning HTML code, Standifer said. "The original of these 'accessibility validators' is Bobby, but my favorite is the Wave, created by Pennsylvania's Initiative on Accessible Technology," he noted.

Such Web design programs as Macromedia Dreamweaver, Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe Acrobat and IBM WebSphere Studio "integrate popular accessibility validation tools," Mike Paciello said. "These tools include HiSoftware's AccVerify; SSB Technologies' InFocus; and UsableNet's Lift." Prices range from US$100 to well over $1,000 for these tools, Paciello said.

Disabled Web Surfers Face High Tides

Despite ready availability of tools and software to build and use accessible Web sites, the Internet can be a forbidding place, especially for those most eager to use it. "Blind people are every bit as excited by the potential of the Internet as the sighted, but, given the difficulty, I believe fewer of us would consider Web surfing a hobby," said University of Missouri computer programmer Gary Wunder, who is president of the Missouri chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

"Our excitement at what a new Web site might offer is tinged with the very real fear it will not work, and sites which work this week may be significantly less friendly or even unusable the next -- this in the name of progress through enhanced features," Wunder said.

Even a large Web site, such as Amazon.com -- "considered a good model for usability in an e-commerce Web site -- is not accessible," Internet interface expert Terence de Giere told NewsFactor.

"I tested Amazon.com with a screen reader, text and audio browsers some months ago, and it was almost completely incomprehensible with assistive technology," said de Giere, who has managed Web accessibility projects for the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Congressional Research Service and Gillette Corporation.

Blinding Speed

Though the waves remain daunting for Internet users seeking better accessibility, with the right tools, vision-impaired Web surfers can still sometimes best their sighted peers.

"Experienced computer users who are blind routinely crank up the speed on their screen readers to the point where the rest of us just hear gibberish," Scott Standifer said. "They are so used to processing the computer voice that they can do it at a blistering pace, leaving sighted users in the dust."


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