by Tor D. Berg
An important aspect of Web sites that deliver an exciting,
compelling, and useful experience to the user is that they
can simply be used by the user. On Saturday afternoon, Kynn
Bartlett of Edapta Inc. spoke on the subject of accessibility
in relation to the worldwide Web.
Bartlett began by defining Web accessibility as removing
artificial barriers to access (artificial meaning those over
which we have some control), to ensure that nearly everyone
can use your Web site. The most obvious example is the use
of the ALT tag to help those with low or no vision to identify
images on Web pages.
The audiences most affected by issues of Web accessibility,
according to Bartlett, are users with disabilities, aging
users, users of alternative devicesbe they assistive
technology designed specifically for people with disabilities,
or simply conveniencesand users with older or nonstandard
As to why Web developers must address accessibility issues,
Bartlett offered several reasons. The first was the most admirable
and altruistic: social justice. Universal access to all parts
of the Web is "the right thing to do," and indeed,
is a large part of what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned when he
invented the worldwide Web. A further reason for offering
high levels of accessibility is simple economics: bigger audiences
generally make good business sense. The law can also be a
motivating factor, as the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) has been found to apply to a broad range of Web sites,
from those offering government and social services to intranets.
Legality is of special interest to Bartlett's audience, and
he pauses his presentation to answer several questions regarding
the application of regulations to Web sites and any punishments
that have been meted out thus far. It is an indication of
the near-ubiquity of the Web in the first place that a general
set of government regulations such as the ADA would apply
to this high-tech venture, and secondly that so many of the
assembled Web professionals would be involved in some form
of government or social service work.
Bartlett philosophically mentions enlightened self-interest
as a final motivation for tackling issues of Web accessibility.
Developers and other heavy computer users are particularly
likely acquire disabilities such as low vision and impaired
mobility. As we lay the foundation for the Web now, said Bartlett,
we would be wise to implement standards that may ensure our
own life-long access.
Bartlett explained that the way to address Web accessibility
is first to follow accepted standards. The government and
private organizations such as the W3C
have published accessibility guidelines that can be very helpful.
But beyond following obscure lists of standards, it is important
that Web developers and designers understand how accessibility-impaired
people use the Web.
People who are blind generally use a keyboard and not a mouse,
and often use screenreader software, which reads text out
loud from the computer screen, in a computer-generated voice.
Screenreaders ignore images (and Macromedia Flash) and offer
a very linear experience. While sighted users are generally
drawn first and foremost to what is dead center on a Web page,
screenreader users must experience an entire Web page to glean
any useful knowledge from it (some screenreaders can understand
certain HTML tags, such as the LONGDESC attribute).
Users with low vision can sometimes see some images, but
usually are limited to high-contrast items. Since they often
enlarge text to make it more readable, textual images can
be a barrier to access.
Bartlett went on to point out that deaf users obviously cannot
get the full benefit of multimedia and sound files (although
many standard users lack sound for situational reasons; i.e.
no sound card). Sound cues on a Web page will likely be missed
by these users.
Dexterity- and mobility-impaired users often can't use a
mouse to point and click, and so the keyboard or other input
devices become very important. Bartlett reminds the audience
that the tab index attribute can be an important tool for
servicing these users.
Cognitive- and learning-impaired users can have a problem
with spelling, so online forms are problematic where they
include text fields. Pull-down menus are a good substitute
for serving these audiences, as are simpler language and clear
and plentiful graphics.
Finally, Bartlett mentioned aging users, though he said this
group is difficult to plan for because they are so diverse.
Some have no problem using the Web, while others show one
or more of the previously mentioned impairments.
To help these important groups of users, Bartlett said, designers
need to foster a user-centric viewpoint, a common refrain
at many sessions at this year's conference. Function and purpose
must rise over form, although Bartlett is careful to recommend
that designers not throw away design elements of their sites,
but rather add adaptive functions to exist beneath or alongside
their traditional designs.
Adaptive functions are being delivered in two ways. The universal
approach is to deliver one set of code to all users and let
the client's browser pick and choose among the provided information
to build the user's experience. The adaptive approach uses
server-side customization technologies such as CC/PP, WAP,
and XML to try to determine what kind of experience to provide.
An ideal adaptive solution prescribed by Bartlett would draw
from both approaches.
Bartlett ended his session with a note of encouragement,
pointing designers to online resources for accessible Web
The W3C has published a Web
CAST's Bobby program is an online form for testing your Web
site. Feed in your URL to check
your site's level of accessibility.
Bartlett himself runs the HTML
Writer's Guild AWARE Center.
And the International
Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI)
is a collection of mostly legal writings by accessibility
expert Cynthia Waddell.
(Note: The Macromedia
Exchange offers several Dreamweaver Extensions that will
help you improve your site's accessibilty.)