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By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2000-04-16 Print this article Print

: Web Blind Spots"> Adding ALT tags to sites built on tools designed to accept them takes about 10 seconds of additional coding per image, experts say. Activists for the disabled say that Web site architects neglect of this simple procedure is the biggest cause of Web pages turning into blank slates as far as the visually impaired are concerned. Besides the tools, there are plenty of information resources that can help Web architects make their sites accessible to the disabled. There are several sites spelling out best practices and regulations. Theres even a well-accepted method-called the Bobby test, developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology-for assessing the degree to which a site is accessible to the disabled.
Meanwhile, activists for the disabled are mounting legal challenges to sites that fail to provide equal access. Recently, the National Federation of the Blind sued America Online Inc. for failing to provide access to its site for the disabled. At the same time, recently approved federal regulations will force government agencies to provide disabled access to public information online.
"I lose my sympathy for companies that are saying, We dont know what we need to do," said Jim Tobias, an adviser to the upcoming online disabilities portal and a founder of the accessible technologies company Inclusive Technologies, in Matawan, N.J. "[The regulations] are already out there. They should be tuning into it. This is not rocket science." Whats the problem? So whats holding Web designers back from making sites accessible? There are many factors. One of them is that, much like the correspondent, many programmers believe that their site designs will be constricted if they add accessibility features, or their content will be censored by government meddling-beliefs that are groundless, experts say. Another barrier to accessible sites is that, even when site architects have good intentions, the need to invest in equal access may not be well-understood at all levels of the organization—particularly top management. That situation, which allegedly occurred at AOL, can result in a site getting stuck in the inaccessibility status quo, experts say. Adding to the problem is that many sites are mired in proprietary, customized software that may not easily support accessibility features such as ALT tags. That was a problem faced seven years ago by Bell Atlantic Corp. (then called Nynex Corp.). At that time, the companys Yellow Pages business directory was hosted on the Prodigy online service. But because Prodigy did not support standard browsers, disabled users did not have access to features such as ALT tags. To provide that access, Nynex had to redevelop the site-and the database of 12 million U.S. businesses-for access from standard browsers. The effort took six months. Experts say that sort of software mess persists online today on sites, such as AOL, that use proprietary software.

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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