Web Access for All

By Debra Donston  |  Posted 2003-05-19

Web Access for All

The economy, war, the economy, security patches, the economy, natural and unnatural disasters, the economy, SARS—there are dozens of reasons why Web accessibility may not be high on organizations priority lists right now (did we mention the economy?), but the issue should at least be on IT managers radar.

Analysts estimate that 10 percent of the population has some kind of physical challenge, and that percentage is expected to increase in the next 10 years as the population ages.

At issue most often with Web accessibility is vision impairment. Software applications such as Freedom Scientifics Jaws use speech synthesis and PC sound cards to "read" site content to users. The software is no James Earl Jones, but it allows blind and other sight-impaired users access to content that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Problems arise when, for example, graphics and images dont have associated alternative text, or colors are used to convey meaning. People with hearing, mobility and cognitive challenges may also require that Web content be coded to meet their needs—for example, associating a text transcript with audio files for hearing-impaired users.

While precedent—legal or otherwise—may be needed to spur some companies along, many organizations are federally mandated to make their Web sites accessible to all constituents.

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act with Section 508, which requires federal agencies to make their electronic information accessible to people with disabilities—and to make that access comparable to the access available to others. In addition to federal agencies, any organization that contracts with the government must adhere to Section 508 guidelines or risk losing the governments business.

The deadline for bringing sites into compliance with Section 508 was June 2001, but many organizations are still struggling to interpret, let alone adhere to, Section 508 guidelines.

An eWEEK Corporate Partner who asked not to be identified said the real challenge for his organization, which must comply with Section 508, surrounds the interpretation of the 508 requirements.

"If you look at the [commercial off-the-shelf] packages designed to check or evaluate a site, they tend to lack consistency across the spectrum of requirements," the Corporate Partner said. "I had a person full time for six months just learning the requirements, then individually working with every stakeholder to make it happen."

A number of applications are available for assessing Web sites accessibility. Most check against Section 508 and/or the World Wide Web Consortiums WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) guidelines (www.w3.org/wai). The tools range in cost from free to tens of thousands of dollars, with capabilities ranging just as widely. (See eWEEK Labs review of Watchfire Corp.s AccessibilityXM and the Labs guide to other accessibility resources.)

Web Accessibility

: Costs and Case Studies">

The total cost of making a site adhere to 508/WAI guidelines is estimated at between $180,000 and $200,000, including testing and continuous monitoring, according to Meta Group Inc. research, while the cost of making accessibility part of a Web site design process will be about $45,000 to $50,000.

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Web site was redesigned in 2001 with Section 508 in mind.

eWEEK Corporate Partner Robert Rosen, CIO at the institute, in Bethesda, Md., said this helped to rein in costs. "It was part of our Web site redesign, so we didnt break it out separately," said Rosen. "Since we designed with that in mind, the incremental cost wasnt great."

Sutter Health has also addressed accessibility concerns during its site redesign process.

As a health network comprising many affiliates, the Sutter Health corporate Web team is responsible for the look and feel of about 30 sites. Sutter Health has not yet adopted any formal accessibility rules, but it has made some significant changes in its most recent redesign.

"We added an enlarge the text feature on our sites, so someone with a problem reading our standard font size can enlarge it, in increments; this item is available on every subpage of our sites," said Judy Stokes, Sutter Health Web site manager, in Sacramento, Calif. "We also made alt text a requirement for all our images, so those who view a site without graphics will have explanatory text for the images."

A problem many organizations are facing is that Section 508 is just one of many requirements they must comply with—"compliance mania," as Meta analyst Jennifer Vollmer puts it.

"Companies are stretched to capacity because they have to deal with [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], the Patriot Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act," said Vollmer, in Stamford, Conn.

"Companies are being forced to prioritize compliance, and my gut instinct is that accessibility isnt at the top of the list," she said.

That may change even for companies that dont have to comply with Section 508, as lawsuits are starting to pile up against organizations whose Web sites are deemed difficult to access by people with disabilities.

Last summer, for example, advocacy group Access Now Inc. and a blind individual filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines Co. The suit contended that the airline had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because its Web site was difficult to access by the blind.

Although U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz ruled in the airlines favor in October, she voiced surprise that a company as large as Southwest was not making things as easy as possible for all customers and potential customers.

At about the same time, a federal judge ruled that MARTA, or the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, actually had violated the ADA by constructing a Web site that was inaccessible to the sight-impaired. Plaintiffs in the case had complained about problems accessing schedule and route information.

The ADA does imply all domains, including the Internet, said Vollmer, but the act can be difficult to interpret. What its really going to take to spur companies to action, she said, is that one big lawsuit.

To avoid being a defendant in that one big lawsuit, companies should gauge their liability and responsibility and weigh the time spent to retrofit existing content and create accessible new content against the benefits of increased customer affinity and, yes, sales.

And that goes for external and internal customers (can all employees easily access all the information on your human resources intranet?), as well as for customers "challenged" through their use of mobile devices.

A PDA user, for example, will be just as stuck for information when a Flash application provides no alternative text as the sight-impaired person using a reader application.

Vollmer recommends that companies assign someone to be the equivalent of a chief accessibility officer and concentrate on new content rather than working to retrofit old content.

"Someone in the organization should take charge of accessibility and what the companys doing about it and then work with IT, HR and legal to form an accessibility board to come up with a strategy to move the company forward," Vollmer said. "Youre not going to get into trouble so much for old content, but make sure that as you progress, you follow guidelines and test with people with disabilities."

Bottom line: More and more people are doing business over the Web. Companies that want to make it as easy as possible for their internal and external customers to use the corporate Web site to research, buy and sell are building virtual access ramps to their sites as part of the Web development and upgrade cycle.

Companies that ignore the issue are ignoring potential customers and existing customer concerns and may be courting problems.

"Access has gotten sidelined," said Metas Vollmer. "I guess we know the reasons why, but that doesnt mean that it should be so. The problem of accessing Web sites isnt going away."

Executive Editor Debra Donston can be reached at debra_donston@ziffdavis.com.

Web Accessibility


Web Accessibility Resources

  • Web Accessibility in Minds introduction to Web accessibility

  • WAVE 3.0 accessibility tool

  • World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative

  • U.S. Governments Section 508 site

  • HTML Writers Guild Web accessibility standards

  • 10-step guide to Web accessibility

  • AskAlice: SSB Technologies Inc.s Web accessibility audit tool

  • Accessibility self-assessment and tutorial

  • Microsoft Corp.s accessibility site

  • Sun Microsystems Inc.s Accessibility Program

  • Apple Computer Inc.s People with Special Needs site

  • Web page filter for the color blind, a work in progress

    Source: eWEEK Labs reporting

    W3C Tips for making

    Web sites accessible">

    W3C Tips for making Web sites accessible

  • Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content

  • Dont rely on color alone

  • Use markup and style sheets, and do so properly

  • Clarify natural language usage

  • Create tables that transform gracefully

  • Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes

  • Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces

  • Design for device independence

  • Provide context and orientation information

  • Provide clear navigation mechanisms

  • Ensure that documents are clear and simple

    For the complete list of guidelines, and detailed advice on how to meet them, go to www.w3.org/tr/wai-webcontent.

    Business Drivers for Accessibility

    Business Drivers for Accessibility

  • Regulatory (high priority)

  • Risk management (medium priority)

  • Improved relationships (medium to high priority)

  • Increased transactional commerce (medium to low priority)

  • "Feel good" marketing (low priority)

    Source: Meta

  • Rocket Fuel