Olympics Web site riddled with blind spots

Organisers claim there's no time to make the official Web site of the 2000 Sydney Games accessible to everyone. One man insists that's not good enough

Organisers of the Sydney Olympics fought to prove the Games' official Web site does not discriminate against the vision-impaired during a lengthy examination of the site at a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission hearing on Tuesday.

Complainant Bruce Maguire, who is blind, first made the allegation in June 1999. Some changes have been made to the site, which is expected to get 1.4 billion hits, but Maguire maintains that the site remains largely inaccessible. "[The Organising Committee] has refused to be reasonable and [Olympics minister] Michael Knight has allowed them to do it," Maguire said in an interview with ZDNet Australia.

"I had an expectation that because the Olympics Web site promised to be such an important site that the Web designers would take Web accessibility into account," Maguire testified during a hearing Tuesday before the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission of Australia. "However, large parts of the site are still unintelligible and inaccessible."

Maguire, who demonstrated how screen reader technology could make the Internet accessible to the blind.

"I know enough about Web sites to know it isn't difficult to make the [Olympic] site accessible," he said.

Maguire said that "in the spirit of cooperation and conciliation" he had suggested that three simple changes by the Organising Committee would make the site accessible to individuals who use screen readers.

First, Maguire said the site made poor use of the Alt-text tag, which is used to describe images in HTML.

Although Alt-text is common on Web sites, often tags do not adequately describe images. A meaningful Alt-text tag allows screen reader software to describe an image using either synthesised speech or a braille display device.

The Olympic Commitee claims to have progressively added Alt-text to its site, but Maguire testified that it has not been provided in all cases.

When defence lawyers challenged him to be more specific, Macguire said, "If some images don't have Alt-text I'm not even sure they're there." He did, however, point to individual pages of the Web site -- the opening page, sport schedule page and torch relay page -- all of which contained images no blind user would know were there.

Macguire also showed how a link to the sport index, which provides events schedules for 36 Olympic sports, was unavailable.

Olympic Committee lawyers suggested that users could type the URL of each sport page into their browser windows to get the same information as the sport index page.

"I find this totally unsatisfactory and totally offensive," Maguire said. "This just isn't the way a sighted person uses a site. When you're browsing Web sites you don't type in URLs, you click on links."

Maguire also pointed out that when he eventually accessed the sport index information it was in tabloid form, thus virtually impossible to reach with a screen reader or a braille display device.

Finally, Maguire specifically requested that sporting results be made available online to blind Internet users during the Olympics. The committee has claimed that would cost AU$4 million and take 368 days to post scores, he said in an earlier interview with ZDNet Australia. Organising Committee lawyers suggested that Maguire could get the results from television or radio broadcasts.

"That's provided I'm watching the TV when [results] are broadcast, or listening to the radio," Maguire said, adding that most of the scores would be for major events.

Defence lawyers said the official Olympic site was not the only one providing information about the games and suggested that Maguire surf other places for results.

Asked by commissioner William Carter whether Olympics results would be displayed on the sites -- whether, in fact, those sites were accessible to the visually impaired -- defence lawyers replied they didn't know.

"It also raises the question that if this information if accessible on other sites, why isn't it accessible on your site?" Carter said.

Results of the hearing, which reconvenes Friday, are expected sometime next week.

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