Hello folks. I thought you might find the following article
interesting. To allow those of you who want to see it on the web, I have
included the URL. This isn't news as much as it is nice to see this kind
of thing on the front page of corporate web sites.Note that this was on the
front page of Sun's web site in early July.
Linkname: New Technologies Open the Web to Everyone
size: 310 lines
New Technologies Open the Web to Everyone
In today's competitive business environment, you know that every hit
on your Web site could translate into dollars. So why would you design
your Web site to exclude nearly 10% of your market? You wouldn't - on
purpose. But that's exactly what you're doing if you create a site
that people with disabilities can't access.
Fortunately, several research organizations and industry associations
are working to help Web designers find ways of making the Web
accessible to everyone. Some of the solutions will not only help
people with disabilities, but everyone who uses a computer - just like
curb cuts help everyone who uses a sidewalk.
Web Poses Barriers
According to the U.S. Access Board, nearly 50 million people in the
United States have some kind of functional limitation or disability.
Approximately 15% of those people -- 7.75 million -- can't use a
computer without some form of assistive technology, such as screen
readers (which translate what's on the screen into Braille, voice
output or audible cues), audio or text-only browsers, or alternative
It's also estimated that 8% of people who use the World Wide Web have
disabilities. But as the page layouts on Web sites grow more complex,
they pose challenges to these users. For example:
* Pages that rely heavily on users clicking a mouse are difficult
for people with mobility impairments to navigate unless the
browser provides keyboard alternatives;
* Frames, columns and tables can't be easily interpreted by screen
readers, which read lines of text from left to right;
* Designers forget to include alternate text versions of images,
image maps or images of text, rendering the information or even
the site itself useless to anyone who's visually impaired, surfing
the Net with in a text-only mode, or using a text-based browser;
* Audio clips are inaccessible to hearing-impaired users unless the
site also provides transcripts;
* Applets can't be translated into text at all, although this is
changing with the advent of the JavaTM Accessibility API.
"The Internet and technology have moved so quickly that assistive
technology hasn't been able to catch up," says Josh Krieger of the
Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit organization
that does research and development in the area of in what is known as
universal design (UD). But people with disabilities don't want
something special. They want what everyone else gets.
The first step in meeting that pent-up demand is educating the Web
community about the issue. But accessibility is about more than just
making sure your site reaches a wider market. The U.S. government has
passed several laws, most notably the Americans With Disabilities Act
(ADA), to establish basic accessibility requirements. Recent Justice
Department rulings imply that the U.S. government may require
e-commerce, government and possibly even large corporate sites to
comply with the same access guidelines as any other public
Designing Pages for Accessibility
A number of groups and individuals are working through the World Wide
Web Consortium (W3C) to coordinate Web accessibility efforts. An
international industry consortium, the W3C launched the Web
Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997. In February 1998, the WAI
issued the first public working draft of its Web accessibility
guidelines for page authoring. The guidelines offer strategies to help
page designers structure their sites and format content so that it is
accessible to users with disabilities.
For example, W3C suggests that Web authors:
* Use style sheets to layout pages instead of HTML, which should be
used instead for document structure;
* Design pages that promote easy orientation (numbered lists,
* Provide alternative ways (such as captions, transcripts or text
descriptions) to access information presented via images, sounds,
applets, and scripts.
In addition, browser vendors need to enable the use of the keyboard
instead of the mouse to access hyperlinks and to navigate links, form
fields and within and between pages.
New Web Standards
Intended as a way to organize information, HTML is, in and of itself,
accessible. It's when designers use it in the way it wasn't intended -
to control page layout - that they "break" accessibility, says Earl
Johnson, who leads Sun Microsystems' Enabling Technologies group. For
example, design "tricks" such as the use of tables as a way to format
text makes it almost impossible for visually impaired users to access
a page with assistive technology like screen readers.
WAI and other groups are working to ensure that HTML and other new Web
standards include enhancements to support accessibility. These
* Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2
* Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is designed to enable the
use of Standardized General Markup Language (SGML) on the Web
* Extensible Style Language (XSL), which provides a way to add style
(fonts, colors, spacing) to XML documents
* Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), which will
synchronize different media (audio, video, text and images), in
on-line multimedia presentations.
The use of CSS2 in particular will improve accessibility because it
helps separate a Web page's content and structure from how it's
displayed, says Jutta Treviranus, manager of the University of
Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), which does
research and development in the area of universal design.
Thus, non-visual technology such as speech synthesizers, Braille
readers, TTY devices and even cell phones can more easily access pages
designed with CSS2. It also supports a variety of media types and even
aural cascading style sheets that control voice inflection for
text-to-speech systems. Another benefit is that CSS2 eliminates the
need for hard-to-maintain separate "text- only" pages. (More
information about the ways in which CSS2 improves accessibility can be
found on WAI's Web site at www.w3.org/WAI/References/CSS2-access.)
According to Judy Brewer, director of the WAI International Program
Office, vendors need to incorporate support for CSS2 into browsers and
authoring tools as well.
"When style sheets are implemented in these tools, people writing
pages can more easily use cascading style sheets when they design,"
says Brewer. "And browsers will display styled content the way authors
Design Vs. Accessibility?
Experts working on accessibility agree that these new standards and
guidelines will give Web page authors creative new options for
designing their sites.
"None of what we're promoting is counter to good Web design," says
ATRC's Treviranus. "And any design trade-offs that do exist will
lessen in the future as HTML and other protocols change."
Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research & Development
Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees. "Good design
and accessibility don't have to be contradictory," he says. "There are
tools emerging that will unwrap the text in tables, and screen readers
are being fixed so that they can read columns. And people can use
graphical images, as long as page authors remember to provide
What Web designers and others in the industry should consider, says
Mike Paciello, executive director of the Yuri Rubinsky Insight
Foundation is how to serve content to people based upon their needs.
"I'm 100% against telling anybody not to design a nice Web page," says
Paciello. "It goes against the idea of innovation. But in order to
provide pervasive accessibility, information needs to be served
according to the user's preference."
In fact, it's not only people with disabilities who need access to Web
content in a format other than visual. In the near future, people will
use an increasingly broad range of devices to browse the Internet.
Specifications like CSS2, which allows control of audio presentation
of Web content (using speech synthesis) will come in useful in these
For example, most displays on handheld computer devices like the
PalmPilot are black-and- white, which eliminates the value of any
color-coding on a page. And a small font size won't even show up,
whether it's on a cellular phone or on a television with WebTV.
"In some ways, users of these devices could be thought of as having a
kind of visual disability," says CAST's Krieger. "They need a
specialized display as much as people with low vision."
In addition, many environments that are being explored for Web access
- such as cars, factory floors or medical situations -- will need to
provide "hands-free" or "vision-free" access to the Web.
"Standards like SMIL can benefit not only people with disabilities but
people in other environments - where there is a lot of noise, for
instance, or where workers don't have access to visual displays," says
Supplying Web content in formats other than visual makes sense for an
even more practical reason: information on the Internet needs to be
searchable. Practices such as using images exclusively to represent
text make searching, categorizing and archiving difficult.
"Search engines need to be able to get at the information stored in an
image, an audio/video clip, or a chart," says Krieger. "If you do
things like build text into a .GIF file, that's not possible."
Authoring Tools Automate Web Design
More and more Web authors today are using page authoring tools to
automate the creation of their sites. WAI and other groups are
developing guidelines for manufacturers of commercial Web page
authoring tools, as well as working with vendors themselves on new
"We want the authoring tools themselves to make designing accessible
pages as automatic as possible," says Brewer.
For example, the University of Toronto's ATRC worked closely with
SoftQuad on the release of their HoTMetaL 4.0 HTML authoring package
in a partnership funded by the Canadian government. For the first time
in a commercial authoring tool, this package includes features to help
Web designers create accessible HTML documents.
"If support for accessibility is built directly into the authoring
tool, it has a better chance of reaching designers who might not
otherwise seek out these guidelines," says Treviranus.
HoTMetaL 4.0 emphasizes accessibility requirements such as alternative
text (known as ALT- text) and ALT-content. It also features a
descriptive text editor; a built-in HTML accessibility checker;
accessibility prompting; and an extensive help system.
You've Built Your Site, Now What?
There are several tools available that let Web author evaluate their
pages once they've built them. One of the most popular tools is Bobby,
a free service from CAST that analyzes Web pages for their
accessibility to both people with disabilities and those using older
or text-based browsers. In addition to the on-line version of Bobby,
CAST is developing a Bobby application written in the Java programming
language that will test entire Web sites for accessibility.
Meanwhile, Trace and ATRC are working on a support tool that vendors
could integrate directly into their page authoring tools to verify
accessibility and offer fixes as the page is being created.
"The emphasis would be on creating accessible documents in the first
place," says Treviranus. "It would make it easier to include things
like ALT-text and appropriate titles for frames."
Beyond Traditional Browsers
W3C and others are working with vendors on guidelines for making
accessible browsers, and for ensuring that the browser itself is
designed to reveal accessibility features included in a page to
assistive technology. But new developments may allow the user
interface itself to act as the assistive technology.
For example, the next version of Java technology includes a feature
called the Pluggable Look-and- Feel, an architecture that separates
the visual implementation of a user interface (how it works) from its
presentation (how it looks). In other words, users could choose how
they want to view (or hear) Web content based on how they are
accessing the computer, without needing assistive technology to
interpret the information.
"The pluggable look-and-feel fits in perfectly with the tenets of
universal design, which is based on the idea of presenting information
in different modalities," says Treviranus.
In fact, ATRC is working with Sun on an audio look-and-feel that will
give visually impaired users access to Web content and structure. This
could also be useful for people who need to browse the Web without
looking at a display -- a surgeon in an operating room, for example.
"We're trying to get away from a visual paradigm and get to
task-oriented interfaces that give the user the ability to perform a
task quickly," says Treviranus. "An audio look-and-feel will give
functional information rather than describing decorative components
that are only part of the visual layout."
For example, Treviranus points out, an audio look-and-feel isn't
constrained by the amount of visual space on a screen, which is what
requires the use of features like pull-down menus. Information can
instead be structured in a serial fashion.
"The pluggable look-and-feel in Jthe Java programming environment is
our first opportunity to get this type of information," Treviranus
says. "Java technology is much easier to make accessible. It has a
better structure and is friendlier to people trying to create access
Giving Control to Users
These developments promise to give even more control to users to
decide how they want to get the wealth of information available on the
"Sure, maybe it's a Web author's responsibility to make sure that Web
content is accessible," says Paciello. "But that assumes that the
author 1) cares and 2) is human. In fact, a lot of Web content is
being dynamically generated. Subsequently, because the server can
identify the type of browser retrieving the information, the server
can serve up the information in the format best suited for the browser
"Our job is to focus on the best way to help ensure that Web content
is always served in an accessible format. And we can do that by
educating the Web community about the need for accessibility."
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