Web accessibility: A welcome change

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"A legal tangle"

The White House Web site pops up on her computer screen, and Carol Coleman clicks on her zoom text to have a closer look.

By magnifying parts of the screen, she can make out what it says despite her limited vision. To navigate the site, however, Coleman, a Web accessibility specialist for the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, opts to use her Freedom Scientific Inc. JAWS screen reader.

As it proceeds through the White House site, the synthesized voice of the reader tells Coleman that the alt-text tags and image tags all seem to be in place. They make it possible to locate statements by the president, photos and links to a virtual tour, news and policies, and the first lady's Web page without having to see the Web pages. Coleman eagerly clicks on a link labeled "Kids Only."

A bright red page designed for kids pops up. "It works," Coleman says happily. Guided by the screen reader, she clicks past the White House tour guided by Spotty, one of the president's dogs, past links to biographies of the president and vice president and their wives to a "text-only" portion of the site where all of the content is displayed in text designed for screen readers.

"It's really improved," Coleman says. "This is just how a kid would go through it." Only a few weeks earlier when she visited the White House kids' page, "it was really a work in progress," she says. "You can tell where they have made an effort. You can see the changes."

The same seems to be true for many federal Web sites since a law called Section 508 took effect last June. The law requires federal agencies and departments to make their Web sites and the electronic and information technology in their offices accessible to people with disabilities.

"I went hunting for bad federal Web sites, and they're hard to find," says Curtis Chong, a technology specialist for the National Federation for the Blind. "I haven't yet been able to lay my finger on a site that is so bad that I would regard it as inaccessible."

But even some of the "accessible" Web sites could stand some "usability" improvements, Chong and other accessibility experts say. "Section 508 provides minimum access — just the basics of what you need to use it," says Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium. Section 508 gave "a huge boost to understanding the need for accessibility. It got people started, but there is plenty more to do."

That becomes clear as Coleman explores a handful of government Web sites. At the Education Department's site, for example, she tries repeatedly to find an online form used to apply for a student loan. But time and again, her screen reader is unable to locate the proper link to the form.

She attempts a search through the federal government portal, firstgov.gov, but finds the sheer volume of links daunting. FirstGov meets Section 508 requirements, Coleman says, "but to get where you want to go is a bit arduous."

The House of Representatives site is even less accommodating. Coleman visits www. house.gov in hopes of finding a link to her representative's page. She locates an alphabetical listing of House members, but it contains only names, no links to individual Web sites. Her reader is also unable to distinguish Democrats, the names in italics type, from Republicans, listed in standard type.

There is, in fact, a list of House members in which the names are clickable links to individual Web sites. But it is farther along on the House home page and Coleman doesn't get to it.

Problems like those encountered on the House Web site are all too common, she says. "The No. 1 problem for all Web sites is poor design and navigation."

But in the case of the House site, there is no violation. Congress passed Section 508 to apply to all federal agencies and departments — not to Congress.

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