by Kim Weathersby
The great irony is that the Internet represents one of the greatest possible solutions for individuals with disabilities. When the materials reside in a digital format (such as HTML) on the Internet, the potential exists for nearly complete equality of access. Knowing the potential of the Internet only exacerbates the frustration of those who cannot access its content. The good news is that the solutions are not as difficult as they might seem.
Universal Design and Disability Access to the Web
Imagine you are viewing a Web site that uses lots of cool graphics and image maps, and that these graphics help you understand and navigate the site. Or that you are viewing a software demonstration with video and audio. Or that you are in a hurry looking for information on a Web site and that you use your mouse to quickly click through the necessary links and make your selections.
If you are not disabled, chances are you take your abilities to view, hear, navigate, and comprehend information on the Web for granted. For many disabled people, though, the Internet promised access to information that had previously been difficult for them to get. That is, until the Internet became so graphically oriented. The same graphics that help most people navigate the Web can substantially hinder those with disabilities. For example, a screen reader reads documents, including Web sites, out loud (Heim, J.  “Locking Out the Disabled.” [Online]). This software greatly helps people who are blind or who have poor vision, but it cannot interpret graphics. However, Web site designers can employ certain techniques to make their sites more user friendly for the disabled.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a set of 14 guidelines, each containing specific checkpoints, for making sites accessible. It has also prioritized the checkpoints so designers know which checkpoints will have the most impact for those with disabilities. Web pages conforming to the guidelines can display a conformance icon provided by the W3C.
The following Quick Tips were developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C/WAI) Education and Outreach Working Group to help designers remember some of the main ideas of accessible design:
- Images and animations – Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual.
- Image maps – Use client-side MAP and text for hotspots.
- Multimedia – Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.
- Hypertext links – Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid “click here.”
- Page organization – Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.
- Graphs and charts – Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.
- Scripts, applets, and plug-ins – Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.
- Frames – Use NOFRAMES and meaningful titles.
- Tables – Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize.
- Check your work – Validate. Use the tools, checklist, and guidelines at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG.
Feeling overwhelmed? Usability guru Jakob Nielsen recommends taking a pragmatic approach to accessible design. If you’ve already designed your site and will have to retrofit it to make it accessible, Nielsen recommends starting by making your home page and other high-traffic pages conform to the W3C Priority 1 checkpoints.
When designing new pages, make sure to meet the Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints. Then upgrade your medium-traffic pages according to the Priority 1 checkpoints. You might be able to leave low-traffic old pages as they are unless they contain content of significant interest to those with disabilities.
There are many resources to help you make your site accessible. If you’re ready to get beyond the concepts and start coding, the following Web sites provide good instructions, and some even provide code samples:
www.w3.org/WAI/ – This is the accessibility epicenter. W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative provides accessibility guidelines, techniques, and technical references for making your site accessible, as well as background information.
aware.hwg.org – This is the Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education (AWARE) Center sponsored by the HTML Writers Guild. It contains information about accessibility and authoring resources.
www.microsoft.com/enable/dev/Web/default.htm – Microsoft’s Web accessibility site provides how-to instructions, information about Internet Explorer and accessibility, and code samples.
www.builder.com/Authoring/Accessibility/?tag=st.bl.3881.dir2.Accessibility – CNET builder.com also provides information about accessible design, including using cascading style sheets to make your site more accessible.
www.Webaim.org – Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) provides information and offers courses and tutorials about accessible design.
www.section508.gov – The Federal IT Accessibility Initiative site provides information about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
www.cast.org/Bobby/ – This site provides information about Bobby, an accessibility validation tool.
Bohman, P. (date not provided). “Universal Design and Disability Access to the Web.” [Online]. www.Webaim.org/articles/Webnet2000
Heim, J. (2000). “Locking Out the Disabled.” [Online]. www.pcworld.com/features/article.asp?aid=17690
Lazzaro, J. (1998). “Making the Internet Accessible for Persons of All Abilities.” [Online]. www.Webreview.com/
Nielsen, J. (1999). “Disabled Accessibility: The Pragmatic Approach.” [Online]. www.useit.com/alertbox/990613.html
W3C/WAI Education and Outreach Working Group (2000). “WAI Quick Tips Reference Card.” [Online]. www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/
Equality of Access is reprinted from Technicalities, vol. 41, no. 4, March/April 2001. Technicalities is a publication of the Rocky Mountain Chapter.