Enabling the disabled

With the emergence of the World Wide Web, a whole new world of information

has opened up for people with disabilities, especially those with vision

impairments who can now zip through thousands of text-laden pages with text

readers.But ironically, as the Internet has matured to include bells and whistles

such as graphics, charts and tables, the barriers for the blind have returned.

As state and local governments raced to launch Web sites, they often overlooked

people with disabilities, inadvertently making it hard for them to take

in information.

Now, however, states and municipalities are refocusing on accessibility

and crafting policies to ensure that e-government is available for everyone.

The impetus for change is federal legislation that requires state and

local government agencies that receive certain types of federal funding

to develop, procure and maintain electronic and information technology that

is accessible to people with disabilities. More details on these requirements

are expected in December. Six months after that, people will be able to

file complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against

agencies with inaccessible sites.

Officials in Connecticut, California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina,

New York and Maine are among those addressing accessibility; several of

them have issued statewide policies requiring accessible sites. In August,

North Carolina announced Web content accessibility guidelines as part of

a statewide technical architecture. In addition, the state's new e-commerce

portal has a mandate to comply with the guidelines.

In July, Connecticut announced that all pages associated with the state's

main site would have to meet accessibility requirements by July 2002. The

state adopted the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility

Guidelines 1.0, recognized as a standard and used as a model by many states.

Kathleen Anderson, Webmaster with Connecticut's comptroller's office

and chairwoman of the state's accessibility committee, said officials were

motivated not only by law, but by the needs of the state's 100,000 vision-impaired

citizens and 175,000 hearing-impaired citizens.

"People with disabilities pay taxes just like anyone else," Anderson

said. "It's the right thing to do. If you keep all of those guidelines in

mind when you are developing a site, it's a lot easier than going back and

having to retrofit it."

Officials plan to train state Webmasters and offer a checklist for them

to use when developing accessible sites. Because Web site content is often

in a state of flux, with most sites being redesigned every 6 to 12 months,

the requirements will not cause a tremendous burden, Anderson said.

Judy Brewer, director of the Web Access Initiative at the W3C, said

most state and local governments have unintentionally made Web sites inaccessible

and are eager to repair them. And many significant changes only take an

hour or two, she said.

The W3C's guidelines direct Webmasters to provide content that is usable

by everyone, including those with vision and hearing impairments. The guidelines

ask Webmasters to provide a text equivalent for every nontextual element,

such as charts and tables.

"If you're using a graphic on a Web page, somebody with a visual disability

won't know the information in that image," Brewer said. "If you have an

audio file on a Web site, somebody with a hearing disability might not know

that's there. You need to have captioning."

The Texas legislature passed a bill in 1999 requiring every state agency

to have an Internet presence, and all sites must meet accessibility criteria

for those with disabilities. Although the legislature did not get into specifics

on those criteria, state officials used the W3C guidelines as a model for

a policy that required all existing and new agency home pages to be accessible

by July 1, 2000. All 240 agencies met the deadline, said Jerry Johnson,

senior policy analyst for the Texas Department of Information Resources.

Often the accessibility requirements — such as avoiding placing text

in columns because a text reader device reads left to right and the information

would therefore be garbled to a blind user — make Webmasters develop more

effective means of publishing information for all users, Johnson said.

"Do I really need all these images on a page?" Johnson said. "Do they

really add value? If they do, then you have to describe them. We're starting

to see more Web sites incorporating streaming media. If that's an important

discussion, are you also including streaming text? If not, you're not complying

with ADA."

Cynthia Waddell, disability access coordinator for the city of San

Jose, Calif., and a nationwide activist for electronic accessibility for

the disabled, said that although some local governments are moving to provide

accessibility, most are still lagging behind the states because of resource

shortages and a lack of awareness among Webmasters.

"Because of the drive to be competitive in e-government, cities may

actually go forward [creating Web sites] and not know they are creating

a much bigger problem," Waddell said. "There are still people who are surprised

that there is a legal requirement for this."

San Jose's policy requires that the main city Web page and department

home pages be linked to a page that offers access instructions for users

with disabilities. In addition, all city Web pages must support text browsers

or have an alternative text page displaying the same information. If documents

are posted in Portable Document Format, then a second version must also

be posted in an accessible format using ASCII or text HTML. All graphic

images are required to have tags with a description of the graphic.

Because many popular Web authoring and design tools do not include accessibility

features, some of the problems for governments can be attributed to technological

shortcomings, Waddell said.

"Those Webmasters using those tools are at a disadvantage," Waddell

said. "We have spell check, why not have a tool to check access? We are

moving from simply posting information into a dynamic, transactional medium.

For it to be truly functional, they're going to need accessibility."

Many of the 250 to 300 Webmasters in Maine work part-time at designing

and maintaining Web pages and have limited technical experience, said Floyd

White, systems analyst for Maine's Bureau of Information Services. Most

have used Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage Web authoring tool, which, Floyd said,

has not provided adequate accessibility features.

"[FrontPage has] become the standard for Web page development for people

who didn't know how to write their own HTML," he said. "[Webmasters] just

needed to get a page up quickly."

Officials in Maine are developing a Web policy, to be introduced this

fall, that will incorporate the W3C guidelines. They are now wrestling with

how to enforce the policy. For now, Webmasters will be given a survey or

questionnaire to determine their technical expertise and progress in making

their sites accessible. Officials will also offer tips for those who use

FrontPage to ensure their sites are accessible.

Even for those governments that are diligently working to ensure their

pages meet accessibility requirements, the dynamic nature of the Web requires

that Webmasters inspect every piece of content so that they do not inadvertently

lock out users with disabilities.

Bruce Hamilton, Webmaster for the Illinois Department of Employment

Security, said his agency has two employees who post and maintain content

on the agency's 80 to 100 Web pages. A year-and-a-half ago, agency officials

realized they were creating barriers for screen readers in some of their

sites. Since then, officials have worked to eliminate those barriers, but

it is a daily struggle, Hamilton said.

"Every time we make a change to the Web page, I have to remind myself

to double-check for the access features," he said. "You just have to constantly

be aware of it every time you add a news item or add a graphic. It's very

labor-intensive. It can be somewhat tedious. Every time I change something,

I'm potentially taking a page that is in compliance and knocking it out

of compliance completely inadvertently."

The main roadblock to electronic accessibility has been industry's "weak

support" of technology to enable access, said Janina Sajka, director of

information systems research and development at the American Foundation

for the Blind. As a result, Web developers who just want to post a page

have been forced to track down complicated guidelines and procedures for

launching pages, she said.

Despite the recent progress with accessibility, Sajka said there are

still state and local governments that lag behind. The public education

sector is probably the worst, she said — despite instructions from the Department

of Education to make sites accessible and offer tools such as electronic

books to aid students.

However, industry is making progress, she said. For example, Microsoft's

FrontPage used to work against accessibility, replacing accessible features

with those that prevented access, she said. That has since been changed.

"That's a good sign," Sajka said. "That's a fairly big thing."

Adobe Systems Inc. is working on a product designed to help Web developers

build accessible pages. The University of Toronto has developed plug-ins

to make sites accessible. And there are two products on the market that

enable people to check their pages for accessibility.

The Center for Applied Special Technology offers a free, downloadable

product called Bobby, which provides a report detailing a site's accessibility.

And the W3C offers a product designed to provide graphic feedback of a site's

accessibility, including hot spots of concern, Sajka said.

—Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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