Online Barriers

Making the Internet more accessible

by Scott R. Bennett on May 1, 2007 - 3:32pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 3

The Internet started in the late 1960s with a network connecting computers at four universities in California to allow them to share information. Today, more than 400 million computers are connected to the Internet and more than 1 billion users tap the World Wide Web (technically a part of the Net) to find information on everything from weather to war, from chess to chat rooms.

I use the Internet several hours every day both in my job as a software engineer and for personal use. As a person with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, I have greater access through the Internet to information and services I need than I would otherwise have.

Online I can read the news, shop, check my bank accounts, read books, download e-books, play chess or chat with friends and family. I even use the Internet to read Quest.

Online isn’t a straight line

While the Internet is an enormous source of information and services, many Web sites are poorly designed, difficult to use or uninformative.

Friends and family members tell me they often get discouraged using the Internet. They say, “It takes too long to find what you’re looking for … There are too many useless Web sites to weed through.” I just tell them that getting the most out of the Net takes patience and the more you use it, the easier it becomes.

For millions of people with disabilities, however, finding information and useful Web sites is much more difficult than for able-bodied people. The majority of Web sites aren’t designed to accommodate our needs and the assistive technology devices we use to operate our computers. This difficulty is enormously important.

Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, says, “People with disabilities need full access to the Web in order to participate fully in today’s society.” (The international consortium of companies in the computer industry develops standards and guidelines for the Web.)

Jon Gunderson, director of the Center for Instructional Technology Accessibility at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, says, “There are so many resources available on the Web for business, education and access to the government that if Web sites are not accessible to people with disabilities, they will not have the same ability to use the services and participate.” His center runs courses and develops tools on Web accessibility.

Section 508

The good news is that the computer industry, businesses and government agencies are starting to recognize the importance of access to the Internet for people with disabilities.

In 1998, Congress created the Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 mandates that the Web sites and software developed or purchased by federal agencies be as accessible to their employees with disabilities and members of the public with disabilities as to everyone else.

By establishing a minimum expectation for accessibility of federal Web sites, Brewer says, Section 508 has helped promote awareness of the need for Web accessibility “since the U.S. government must verify that any products or services they purchase support accessibility. So there is a ripple effect which goes beyond the government itself.”

Accessible federal Web sites are vital for people with disabilities to obtain information on government programs and services they need. But despite the legal requirement, federal agencies are still a long way from full compliance with Section 508.

While most federal and state government Web sites have made at least some progress, “Few government Web sites fully comply with even the basic level of requirements in Section 508, let alone the more comprehensive accessibility guidance in W3C/WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” Brewer says. “They’ve often done only half of what they need to make their Web sites really work well for people with different kinds of disabilities.”

Nonetheless, “The level of awareness is higher than it was before, and many organizations have Web accessibility policies in place,” Brewer says of businesses, organizations and government agencies around the world.

The irony is that designing accessible Web pages is relatively easy.

The path to improvement

Several accessibility issues affect Internet users with neuromuscular diseases.

One of the Web design features that I find troublesome to handle with my voice recognition software is the use of frames.

Frames allow Web sites to display multiple pages within a single window, with each page in its own frame. When using frames you have to click somewhere on the frame if you want to scroll down on the Web page within that frame.

But when you’re using voice recognition software or some other alternative input device, clicking every frame to look at each page is both time-consuming and annoying. Web sites should avoid using frames or offer “no frames” versions so that people using alternative input devices can easily access information.

Designers also can create Web pages with variable font sizes for people who require larger fonts; or provide alternative pages in addition to the main Web page — for example, an additional text-only page for people using screen readers or a no-frames page for people using alternative input devices. Many companies already do this for people who access Web pages using PDAs or cell phones.

Many other techniques are available, and would make a world of difference: having keyboard equivalent commands for those who can’t use a mouse device; correctly setting the tabbing order so users can navigate a page using the tab key; and giving each page a unique title so users can easily distinguish where they are on a Web site.

All of these approaches would save time and stress on weak hand muscles or the taxing process of voice input.

What can you do?

So what can be done to make more Web sites accessible to people with disabilities?

Companies and organizations should evaluate their Web sites, then develop a plan for making them accessible as soon as possible. And Web site developers, people with disabilities and other interested people should become aware of problems and issues related to Web accessibility.

The W3C/WAI Web site has information on Web accessibility and the guidelines and tools for designing accessible Web sites. Businesses can use the resources “Improving the Accessibility of Your Web Site” and “Implementation Plan for Web Accessibility” to help them get started.

As an individual Web user, you can:

  • let companies know when you’re having difficulty with their Web sites and inform them how making their Web sites accessible is in their interest

  • lobby your state and federal government officials about Web accessibility

  • go to the W3C/WAI Web site and help to define Web accessibility standards, participate with one of their interest groups, or just learn what the standards are and how to help promote them

Access to the Web is as important for people with disabilities as access to buildings, education and services. And as individuals, companies, organizations and Web designers become more aware of the guidelines, techniques and tools for designing accessible Web sites, access to the Web will continue to improve.

I know what a difference accessibility can make because using the Web has dramatically improved my life.

Scott R. Bennett is a software systems engineer in Taunton, Mass.

More internet resources

Architectural Access Board
Section 508 Homepage

Internet Hosts Statistics

Internet User Statistics

Over the Horizon: Potential Impact of Emerging Trends in Information and Communication Technology on Disability Policy and Practice (December 2006)
A publication of the National Council on Disability.

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