Web Blind Spots

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2000-04-16

Web Blind Spots

Put a Web developer up against a wall and demand why his or her site isnt accessible to the disabled. Youre likely to get a response something like this recent anonymous posting to online techie news site slashdot.org: "Im sorry, the burden is on the user," the correspondent sniffed. "Im not going to dumb down the graphics on my site for anyone!"

Obviously, theres more than one way to be blind.

Like the anonymous e-mailer, many Web developers either have written off online disabled users or are unaware of how to go about making their sites accessible to the disabled. Between 95 percent and 99 percent of sites are inaccessible to the visually, hearing- and/or mobility-impaired, according to studies. Problems are so common that analysts attempting to evaluate sites for disabled access have been overwhelmed. "The way weve been looking at evaluating sites is a triage approach," said Harley Manning, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. "Weve been so overcome with errors."

But, say analysts, ignoring the issue of disabled accessibility is not only unnecessary, its bad business. For one thing, the disabled community represents a large-and largely untapped-online market. For another, companies that fail to make their sites accessible to the disabled may soon face legal and regulatory challenges. The good news is that making it possible for disabled consumers to access your site doesnt necessarily require large expenditures of time or money-nor does it mean making the site unattractive to non-disabled users.

There are a couple of keys: First, justify the need to invest in disabled access primarily in terms of expanding market share, and second, design sites from the beginning using techniques that can easily support technologies that allow for access by the disabled. Technologies for enabling Web site access for the disabled and tips on how to use them are, for the most part, easy to find and use. One of the most useful tools is the so-called Alternate tag (ALT tag) standard, supported by HTML and most browsers. Web programmers use ALT tags to assign brief text descriptions to images such as screen icons. With a text reader, a visually impaired user can get an audio description of the ALT-tagged icon and can navigate a site. The World Wide Web Consortium is currently pushing tool vendors to support accessibility standards such as ALT tags.

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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 CanDo.com 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 slashdot.org 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.

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The bottom line also contributes to the widespread reluctance to invest in Web access for the disabled. Many enterprises dont view the disabled as a significant market for online services or products, according to Tom Wlodowski, project manager for the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media, in Boston. Thats why even Web designers with experience coding for accessibility say they sometimes have trouble convincing clients to pay for those features, particularly if clients dont view the disabled as their sites target audience, according to Barry Bassin, a managing director at Scient Corp. and the architect of a Johnson & Johnson Co. site targeted at the disabled.

That attitude can be a big mistake, however. After all, when a Web site shuts out the disabled, it means that its enterprise is shutting off access to a sizable slice of the consumer pie. According to Judy Brewer, director of the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Access Initiative and a member of the U.S. Access Boards Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee, about 54 million Americans, or about 20 percent of the U.S. population, are disabled. Eight percent of the U.S. population has visual, learning, cognitive, auditory or physical dexterity disabilities severe enough to affect their ability to access the Web.

"You dont want to throw away that market sector in an extremely competitive marketplace," said Brewer, in Cambridge, Mass.

The disabled community, experts say, can represent a loyal and profitable market. For example, organizations such as Bell Atlantic have found that the disabled welcome any and all acceptance into the world of e-commerce. Response from disabled users to the companys accessible Yellow Pages was so great that it is now hosting several online portals for the disabled community.

"They say, For once, people are thinking about me as a customer," said Rich Ellis, director of strategic alliances at Bell Atlantic, in Washington. "They [even say], Send us the junk mail in Braille, also."

A refreshing mistake

Still, even with the best intentions and all the know-how, sites can fall down on accessibility. For example, the team responsible for the Web page for Vice President Al Gores election campaign-at www. algore2000.com-has gone so far as to refuse to use products and services if they dont pass accessibility guidelines. As a result, the site received an "A" rating-second only to Sen. John McCains site-in a report released in December by research company OrbitAccess, titled "Web Accessibility of Presidential Candidate Sites."

Yet even this accessibility-hip page had a frustrating glitch when developers failed to account for a forced refresh option that interrupted speech readers as they attempted to interpret pages. The problem, which wasnt predicted even when the Bobby test was run, has been fixed, according to Ben Green, director of Internet operations at Gore 2000 Inc. election headquarters, in Nashville, Tenn. And while the refresh fix wasnt done to address accessibility per se, other fixes, such as adding LONGDESC tags, were done as direct responses to feedback from online visitors who accepted the vice presidents invitation to comment on the site. Green said the Gore team was able to respond to the criticism because it factored in support of standards and accessibility from the beginning. "[Accessibility is] something youve got to address at the outset of the project," he said. "If you dont, youre going to have problems."

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One way in which Web site designers can avoid future accessibility problems is to minimize their use of frames. Thats because frames break pages into separate windows that are difficult to navigate with linear text readers. "If you decide to go with a frame set, youve created more work for yourself already," Green said.

Experts dont necessarily recommend crossing frames off a Web architects design palette entirely. But its important to plan ahead to avoid painting a site into an inaccessible corner, said Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, the author of the OrbitAccess report. One way to get around accessibility problems brought on by frames is to label them, so that disabled visitors know whether a frame contains information or is simply decorative, Bathory-Kitsz said. An even better alternative is to employ so-called user agent information, which lets a server determine the browser being used so that it can present Web pages in the appropriate format.

All this advice is fine for heading off accessibility problems that might be encountered by the visually impaired, but the hearing-impaired community has particular problems when it comes to getting access to online audio content. Even sites such as www.algore2000.com and kalvos.org-a music page maintained by Bathory-Kitsz-have a difficult time posting text transcripts because they cant keep up with constantly changing content for which they have no written record. And automated speech recognition software is still not robust enough for such applications, experts say. Therefore, the hearing-impaired miss out on being able to read Gores speeches, for example, or getting transcripts of interviews with composers on Bathory-Kitszs site.

"Audio output can be a barrier when it comes to access to the Internet," said Herk Herkimer, disability community specialist for Can Do Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif., who himself has had difficulty accessing the Web because of a hearing disability. "[For example,] AOL says, Welcome, youve got mail. A deaf person cant hear that."

Lining up support

Even when the technology is available and relatively inexpensive, IT managers and other advocates for Web site access for the disabled often face challenges gathering political support for the investments necessary to make Web sites accessible to the disabled. At Nynex, lining up management buy-in was a piece of cake, according to Kathy Ives, the former managing director for electronic services at Nynex, now an analyst at The Kelsey Group Inc., of Pembroke Park, Fla. Thats because, she said, she presented the change as a way to increase the companys online audience.

"It wasnt so much, This is something we want to do thats good for the visually impaired, because [management] didnt understand so much the technology," she said. "The sell was, If you want as many people as possible to see your directory product, we have to get it on as many platforms as possible."

Getting designer buy-in, on the other hand, required a bit more education. "[Our] designers thought the site would look like a generic box of crackers with a white background and black type," Bell Atlantics Ellis said. "But when you look at a Web site, its hard to say whether its accessible or not. Its things behind the scenes. Its things that say, This is a navigation bar, rather than saying Click here."

Still, say advocates for the disabled, theres a lot of progress needed in lining up support for accessibility from the powers that be. When OrbitAccess released its assessment of the disabled access provided by presidential candidates sites, for example, the report drew zero feedback from the candidates.

"We were disappointed that the candidates didnt take the issue more seriously, particularly the front-runners," said DAnne Hotchkiss, communications director with OrbitAccess, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I think its an indication of lack of respect. I think they dont take people with disabilities seriously. I think they perceive them as not having political clout, and so therefore they can be ignored."

Or can they be ignored? Considering the size of the disabled market and the rapidly changing regulatory and legal environment, e-businesses would do well to take off the blinders now and begin providing Web access to all-before competition steals the market, and before a judge takes off the blinders for them.

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