Can AJAX find harmony on agency Web sites?

Hot coding technique unable to hit fed Web pages because of accessibility questions


The bells and whistles of Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language (AJAX) might sound an alarm for government Web sites, which must comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The dynamic Web programming platform has become more popular in the past year because the collection of coding techniques facilitates instant interactions with Web sites. Users don’t need to wait for pages to completely reload to find desired information.

Among other prominent examples, AJAX powers Google’s mapping system and Netflix’s pop-up movie previews. But government Web sites are wary of this easy-to-use phenomenon because AJAX doesn’t adhere to Section 508, which requires federal agencies to make their Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

That limitation could change soon. Last month, MB Technologies released Version 2.0 of Bindows, the company’s AJAX object-oriented programming platform. Bindows is the first AJAX platform that is interoperable with Section 508-compliant applications, including text-to-speech screen readers such as JAWS and Window Eyes and screen magnifiers such as MAGic.

“We enable developers who use the Bindows platform to develop applications that are accessible,” said Yoram Meriaz, chief executive officer of MB Technologies.

But analysts say compliance is impossible for Web sites that take advantage of AJAX’s full capabilities. “If you want to do real AJAX, you cannot be 508-compliant,” said Ray Valdes, a research director at Gartner.

With AJAX, user interactions spawn updates to on-screen information. The changes can apply to different parts of a Web page without necessarily requiring user input. Because of that capability, Section 508-compliant tools such as screen readers often have trouble translating AJAX-enabled sites.

However, according to one federal Section 508 expert, the programming is the problem, not the platform.

“It depends on the implementation, just like any kind of coding,” said Don Barrett, assistive technology specialist and Section 508 coordinator at the Education Department. “Even though there might be difficulty in making it compliant, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

Judging an entire programming platform based on specific standards is not a sound method for gauging accessibility, particularly when different technologies may or may not read compliant Web sites, Barrett said.

“We encourage people to code to the standard, not to the screen reader,” he said.

Platform developers agree with Barrett that compliance requires good coding. “Even though the platform is accessible, it doesn’t mean the application is accessible,” said Christophe Coenraets, senior technical evangelist at Adobe Systems. With Adobe’s Flash-based AJAX alternative, Flex, accessibility is also dependent on how developers code the page.

The sluggishness in developing accessibility bridges is partially due to a lack of interest. In the private sector, companies don’t have the motivation to add accessibility.

“I found an appallingly low amount of awareness about Section 508 compliance” in industry, Valdes said. “Their idea of [accessibility] is to put up a text version of the home page.”

Industry’s apathy toward compliance has led to several lawsuits, the most recent of which was filed in February. The National Federation of the Blind sued Target because the federation claims that the nationwide retailer’s Web site violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although the law does not require accessibility on commercial Web sites, the case could set a legal precedent that would affect business Web sites.

Government agencies can’t ignore accessibility because Section 508 law covers all government sites, including some mandated in contracts. For example, NASA’s Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement IV contracts require vendors to build fully accessible, Section 508-compliant Web sites.

Although Bindows is one small AJAX object-oriented platform in a sea of at least 130 competitors, Valdes said he thinks the company is gaining an advantage by tackling accessibility compliance. “I think Bindows is doing well by raising this issue,” he said.

What makes AJAX inaccessible

Although Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language (AJAX) and other new Web programming developments trumpet easy-to-use interfaces, inaccessibility for users who are blind or have other disabilities is a growing problem.

The primary reason is that AJAX relies heavily on JavaScript, which is mouse-intensive and therefore difficult for visually impaired people to use. Some older Web browsers that are still popular with some visually impaired users cannot run JavaScript.

Screen readers scan information on a Web site and present it to the user via Braille displays or text-to-speech applications. Because AJAX can update information or displays anywhere on the page, screen readers will not be able to pick up discrete changes or changes to a spot on the screen that they have already read. For example, an AJAX-built calculator embedded in a Web site could have a results box that updates whenever a user performs a new calculation. Screen readers would not pick up those new calculations.

AJAX can also alter or inhibit user control or trigger automated events that might be visually noticeable but undetectable to users with sight impairments.

Possible fixes include posting a notice that a Web site contains JavaScript or documenting script changes in text. However, those alternatives are poor substitutes for the page’s functionality.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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