Web Access for All

Accessibility issues too important to ignore.

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.)