Make the Internet Accessible for All

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, requires that government provide individuals with disabilities access to public places. If you take a walk around your state or local government complex, school or library, you'll see new ramps, wider doorways, new elevators and Braille signs where needed. All of these allow--even invite--everyone in.

As the Internet approaches its 30th birthday, we are rapidly making it a place of public accommodation. We are transacting business on the World Wide Web. Permit applications, license renewals, e-mail and requests for proposals. State and local governments that used to print all their publications on paper are publishing them on the Web. But if we are making these major transformations to the way we conduct business, and doing so with taxpayer money, we must make sure everyone can participate.

Our new place of business must not only be accessible, it must say, "Welcome."

Take a "walk" around your agency's Web site. But first, put your mouse away. Can you navigate your site without it? Some people can't use a mouse. People with limited or no physical mobility use a keyboard or voice input; those who are blind or visually impaired use a keyboard or voice input in combination with a text screen reader.

Try accessing your site with your browser's graphics turned off. Is your site still as effective and informative? Many of your visitors turn graphics off because of slow modem speeds or low-end processors in their PCs; other users do this because they are more interested in your content than your presentation.

A Web site that can't be navigated without a mouse, or is useless without the graphics or doesn't have enough information in text format, will lock people out of your place of business. I read an e-mail message a couple of years ago written by a woman whose husband was blind. She spoke about how, in the early days of the Internet, it was a wonderful place for her husband. It was all text-based and universally accessible. Now, it's a world of images, clicks, online forms, marquees, blinking text and music, all of which can be obstacles to accessibility.

I can hear Web designers and graphic artists saying, "But what about my photographs, logos and maps?" Making a Web site accessible does not have to stifle its artistic presentation or professional look. The design and presentation will not suffer if you follow one simple rule: Create your site with text-only pages first. When you are sure that it is complete and accessible, then add the images and other design touches. Your site then will be accessible to everyone.

Connecticut's policy is to ensure that people with hearing, visual and other disabilities have equal access to public information that is available on the Internet and the Web. We have followed that policy in designing and maintaining the Web site of the state comptroller, Nancy Wyman.

To implement that policy at the state government level, we have formed a work group focusing on Web site accessibility education and outreach to all state agencies and municipalities. The goal of the ConneCT Management Advisory Committee (CMAC) Web Site Accessibility Subcommittee ( www.cmac.state.ct.us/access ) is to make ConneCT, Connecticut's Web Site, the first universally accessible state government Web site in the country.

Don't get me wrong--I love the Internet. The opportunities it is giving government to improve the way we do things is tremendous. But we need to be planning our Web sites with the ramps, curb cuts and wider doors already built in instead of trying to fit them in after the fact. Let's do it right the first time.

-- Kathleen Anderson is a Webmaster in Connecticut's Office of the State Comptroller and chairwoman of the CMAC Web Site Accessibility Subcommittee. She can be reached at kathleen.anderson@po.state.ct.us or (860) 702-3355.

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