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Saturday, December 9, 2000   Coverage
December 7, 2000
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Kynn Bartlett feels that the issue of Web accessibility is so important that he wore a suit.

Regardless of Disability

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 devices—be they assistive technology designed specifically for people with disabilities, or simply conveniences—and users with older or nonstandard browsers.

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 and WaSP 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 development:

The W3C has published a Web Accessibility Initiative.

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.)

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Web Standards Project
Closing Keynote Address

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