Web-ability

Web-ability: By Mike Britten. Even people who aren't in the position to enjoy all the Web's bells and whistles ought to be able to access its information.


Mike Britten
May 5, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

What happens if you browse the Web, but first turn your monitor off? Poof! Hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, R&D and relentless hype -- not to mention human creativity and effort of monumental proportions -- disappear.

When you can't see what's going on, all of the Web's hippest, state-of-the-art, supposedly life-enhancing technical innovations -- spinning widgets, dancing logos, animated come-ons, scrolling gossip, streaming video clips and interactive shopping forms -- become instantly meaningless.

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As any student at Gallaudet University will be happy to tell you, with today's growing emphasis on multimedia, the ability to hear can't hurt when it comes to accessing information, either. Then consider what a bitch it can be even for a sighted person who might have any one of countless possible mobility problems to position a mouse cursor over the word "here" in "click here."

Making Web pages accessible to the widest imaginable population was always a part of the intentions of its original creators, who dreamed of a universal Net-based information medium. But as the Web has grown commercialized, accessibility has often taken a back seat to proprietary schemes or been forced to play second fiddle to extravagant designs.

I recently followed a link to an essay with a title that intrigued me: Could Helen Keller Read Your Page? Terry Sullivan, co-author of that article, is the Webmaster for All Things Web, a site that focuses on design issues and usability engineering. When I contacted him via e-mail, Sullivan did not mince words: "These days, most Web sites are not only NOT designing for accessibility, they are designing for INaccessibility, by focusing most of their efforts on presentation, rather than content. Almost everyone will have some trouble with such sites at some point in their lives."

That last sentence is a reference to the code word that millions of members of the disabled community use when referring to the rest of the world: "TABs," or "temporarily able-bodied" persons. And since most TABs, as Sullivan points out, "will likely suffer some physical impairment (particularly vision impairment) sometime in their lives," the issue of universal access to the Web touches every current and future consumer of it. "It's unbearably tragic that so many designers are so shortsighted," says Sullivan.

"Accessibility" is a righteous concept, politically correct to the core. But is there a consensus yet about what it is and how to achieve it on the Web? Not exactly, though standards are beginning to emerge. Though the Americans With Disabilities Act includes language that extends its principles to the online world, it has yet to have substantial impact on the Web.
In the meantime, "accessibility" means different things to different people -- and this, I think, is worthwhile, since the problem it addresses is so complex and multifaceted.

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From a technical point of view -- one not necessarily having anything at all to do with the needs of the disabled -- accessibility is about creating Web pages that display equally well in any competing browser. There already exists a growing community of activists who champion what's known as the Campaign for a Non-Browser-Specific WWW. Simply put, if you cruise on over to my Web site using Browser X, but my site uses proprietary extensions to HTML that only work when viewed with Browser Y, then at least some of my site is inaccessible to you -- oh poor hapless bastard user of inferior technology. And it's just too damn bad.

Disabled Web users, on the other hand -- notably the blind and visually impaired -- face specific obstacles and use specific technology to get around them. Chief among these tools is screen reader software capable of turning text into Braille or synthesized voice. Fundamentally, however, screen readers can look at text only from left to right and top to bottom. An accessible Web site is one that makes this possible -- not by depriving sighted users of all the nice images and eye candy that we love, but by including alternate routes around them.

When screen readers hit an image, they can't make sense of it. Only text computes. Fortunately, there is a simple method available to designers and HTML coders that enables them to provide smooth detours. This requires developers to take advantage of an optional feature in HTML, a tag they can use to provide a textual description of images. Unfortunately, precisely because it is optional and takes a little extra time to implement -- sometimes, too, because of a lack of awareness and sensitivity -- very few commercial sites bother. As if this weren't already enough of a hassle, imagine how mind-blowing it is for screen readers to deal with multicolumn, newspaper-style presentations or even farther-out designs that rely on excessive use of HTML's frames and tables.

The thing is, even sites that absolutely depend on fancy visual design to attract the widest possible audience of sighted visitors could, if they wanted to, also include the many millions of disabled Americans (plus the hundreds of millions of potential customers worldwide) -- simply by providing a link at the top of a home page that leads to a text-only version of the site in question. Text-only means, well, text only -- including intelligently worded hyperlinks. It's also worth noting that many sighted Web users regularly take advantage of their browser's option to turn graphics off for the purpose of getting at content as quickly as possible, especially over slow modem connections.

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The most significant work being done in the accessibility field today is that of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the internationally recognized group, headquartered at MIT, that's responsible for Web standards. This aspect of their work is in the form of an international project called the Web Accessibility Initiative. As I followed the hypertext trail from one link to the next, I kept seeing references to a mysteriously named organization -- the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation.

According to Executive Director Mike Paciello, the late Rubinsky was an "icon of the Information Age." Among his considerable achievements, which include being the co-founder of SoftQuad (maker of the Web authoring tool HoTMetaL Pro), Rubinsky was the first technical director of the International Committee for Accessible Document Design. "Yuri was hugely responsible for the success of the first formal document standard that was used to translate electronic information into Braille, synthesized voice and large text," says Paciello. Officially established in April 1996, the foundation was created to carry on Rubinsky's work on behalf of the blind and visually impaired. Paciello is proud to note that the Web Accessibility Initiative, the original version of which he wrote and designed, was the first "feather in our cap."

Paciello further explained that he "positioned the plan as a collaboration between government, industry and disability groups from the start -- I knew that this was the only chance it had of succeeding." Among the usual industry suspects committed to the WAI are IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, Sun and Apple. Governmental participants include the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the White House
and the European Commission. Involved members of the disability community are too numerous to list -- so numerous, in fact, that without advanced search engine skills, you'll need kick-ass patience to find precisely what you're looking for. Which brings us to WebABLE.

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Originally Paciello's personally funded project, this road map to disability information on the Web is now maintained by the foundation Paciello heads. Over the past six months, the foundation has also conducted about 15 major workshops that focus on the WAI Page Authoring Guidelines, in a vigorous effort to educate webmasters and Web designers about Web page accessibility. A new lingo has naturally begun to crop up in the wake of these initiatives. "Electronic curbcut" is a new way to describe navigational features that make it possible for disabled users to more easily maneuver around a Web site. Free HTML validation services, such as the Center for Applied Special Technology's extremely friendly Bobby and the W3C's own more austere HTML checker, are readily available to help anyone create more accessible Web space.

There is simply no excuse for creating inaccessible Web sites anymore. The amount of information available to help site builders work around barriers is staggering in its variety and depth. The WebABLE Library page is one of the best examples of this. So is the University of Wisconsin's Designing a More Usable World. To ignore research of this caliber and build a site that is not inclusive, that does not provide crucial accessibility features like alternate textual descriptions for graphic images, is akin to building a public library without wheelchair ramps or special services for the blind. Terry Sullivan of All Things Web puts it this way: "One of my personal pet peeves is that creating accessible pages is just so easy to do, and yet so few designers bother to take the extra minute or two to do so."

Sullivan says there is a strong incentive for creating accessible pages that most people seem to ignore because they mistakenly equate accessibility with "lowest common denominator." But he is quick to point out that most of the techniques used to create high-accessibility pages are identical to the techniques used to create high-compatibility pages. "In other words, high-accessibility pages not only render well for, say, speech browsers, they render well in virtually all browsers. Every reader who's had a bratty page lock up their browser can relate to the need for designing for compatibility."

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Now, let's just stipulate that personal home pages, the ones that only a few relatives and friends ever visit, are exempt from the standards put forth by advocacy groups like the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation. Uncle Jake's Virtual Worm Farm and Zen Rock Climbing Quarterly don't concern me, either. And magazines like Salon, that are more about the written word than graphics and style for their own sake, could easily tweak behind-the-scenes code, at little expense, in order to improve their compliance with the ideal of universal access.

These suggestions are easy to implement. It's only when one takes a hard look at large, multimillion-dollar sites that the situation appears dire. You know the culprits -- from entities like major network news and information organizations to sprawling entertainment and sports conglomerates, these server-hungry beasts make the work that needs to be done seem almost insurmountable. Not because, as Sullivan and many others point out, it's especially difficult to do; it's just the sheer, unwieldy size of it all.

Paciello says that we're just beginning to touch the problems. He counsels, however, against too much pessimism. At the same time, having been in the trenches for over a decade, he says, "Realistically, it will take a mammoth effort to make this happen. The W3C, being an internationally recognized consortium of industry, should help. They are certainly promoting it. Give things time; I think the shift will happen. We'll need to make a very large investment in education and tool development, though -- larger than what's currently in place."


Mike Britten

Mike Britten is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif.

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