Out of Touch

Web site accessibility makes slow strides

Judy Dixon is an old hand on the web, but www.coke.com brings her surfing to a screeching halt.

"I can go nowhere and do nothing," says Dixon, consumer relations officer of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Washington, D.C.

That's because The Coca-Cola Co.'s site uses animations written in Macromedia's Flash program on its opening page, which gives Dixon, who is blind, no textual information for her to read, either via a Braille reader or through a synthesized text-to-speech program.

Coca-Cola representatives say the company's site is optimized for the blind - except for those who have the Flash program already installed on their computers. In that case, the program automatically kicks in. But, Dixon says, "IE [Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser] prompts me to install it. You can't assume every blind person doesn't have Flash on their machines."

Welcome to the world of Web accessibility for the disabled.Although the blind can have particularly acute problems moving through cyberspace, the deaf and physically handicapped have their own challenges. Experts, including Dixon, say that Web accessibility has made strides in recent years, but it is far from perfect.

Larry Goldberg, director of media access of the WGBH Educational Foundation, a division of Boston's public television station, estimates that about 10 percent of the Web is now navigable by people of varying disabilities, and improvement is steady.

The prime catalyst for improving Web accessibility has been Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, a federal statute passed in 1998 that requires new federal Web sites to meet basic accessibility standards as of June 24, 2001. Agencies are also required to buy software and hardware that is compliant with the law.

While Section 508 has no direct bearing on the private sector, the federal government's trillion-dollar buying power has raised the profile of an issue that previously may have been lumped somewhere in a back closet of the mind with the March of Dimes.

"I'm encouraged," says Judy Brewer, director of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) Web Accessibility Initiative. "Awareness for the need of Web accessibility is really beginning to spread."

Since Section 508 became law, Brewer says, companies have called her seeking advice on how to improve their Web sites. While there are some basic tips (see chart, on this page), measuring accessibility isn't cut and dried.

Text Deprived

For Dixon, accessibility is all about ease of use. she regularly uses Peapod's grocery delivery service. She can work through the site and put an order in, but it's hard going. Peapod uses extensive JavaScript-based forms in its ordering process. Like Flash, JavaScript often leaves the blind with little or no textual information to go on.

"It's so extremely difficult," Dixon says, adding that even though she can use the service, "I still don't think that makes Peapod accessible."

On the other hand, Dixon finds CNN.com and eBay very accessible, mainly because they offer text cues to skip quickly through main pages and move into the site.

In many cases, experts say, the fixes that make it easier for the blind to navigate sites also help those who are physically handicapped.

Bryan Campbell, who lives in Toronto, has cerebral palsy and has limited motor control. He types on a keyboard using a "head stick," a homemade tool fabricated from a coat hanger and an accountant's rubber finger. Between that and extensive use of macro commands, Campbell converses via e-mail with natural fluency. "Browsing the Web is not really that hard, as long as sites aren't too browser-specific," he says. He exclusively uses Opera Software's Opera browser because it has handy keyboard commands that allow him to scroll up and down. But not all sites support Opera, and Campbell says the problem is getting worse as Internet Explorer becomes the standard and more developers write code specifically for it. "I would like the Web to be the way TV and radio work - it doesn't matter what [client device] you are using," he says.

Campbell's solution: Get 10 million people to convert to Opera, and then more sites will support it.

The deaf have the least accessibility problems, since sight and full motor control are the basic prerequisites for operating computers. Their primary stumbling blocks are streaming videos that aren't captioned. Nancy Creighton, the National Association of the Deaf's publications coordinator, says about 90 percent of the Net is accessible to her. The remaining 10 percent she doesn't bother with.

"It kind of becomes a self-discriminatory situation. I know where things aren't accessible, and I don't try," says Creighton, who adds that much of the streaming content on Web sites today is "just filler."

Many deaf netizens must contend with a much larger issue: English is their second tongue, behind American Sign Language. "They often don't have ëownership' of English or feel insecure with their skills, so they'd rather sign," Creighton says. Some deaf people even set up video cameras and sign to each other in real-time, she says.

Experts and activists agree that the real solution to improving Web access lies with site developers and Web development tool makers.

"What we really need to do is talk to developers," WGBH's Goldberg says. "It's not as hard as you would think. We try to play off developers' sense of challenge."

Web development tools such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Microsoft's FrontPage have embraced accessibility, but none offers the Holy Grail that disabled advocates seek: automatic text tagging of images and other features that would make Web sites truly easy to use.

The W3C has been actively involved in promoting accessibility, and the group has published voluntary standards for both client software and developer tools. So far, about 83 percent of the W3C's accessibility standards are now implemented in at least one product, Brewer says.

Still, while tool makers are being pressed to go further, many put the onus on developers to author sites that are disabled-friendly and can be read by the leading text-to-speech screen readers, such as Freedom Scientific's Jaws for Windows and GW Micro's Window-Eyes.

"Accessibility always depends on developer awareness," says Frances Himes, senior manager of market development of Macromedia, maker of Flash and Shockwave animation software.

Giovanni Mezgec, Microsoft's lead product manager of FrontPage, says accessibility has been a 10-year project at Microsoft. But "it will always go back to the developer. We cannot force people or dictate to them."

Both Macromedia and Microsoft say that they have worked accessibility tools into their products. Macromedia provides a special toolkit for accessibility, Himes says. FrontPage offers the ability to text-tag bullets, images, tables and headers on frames.

Those in the trenches say that while progress is being made in awareness, new technologies such as streaming video and animation make it harder for the disabled to surf the Web easily. "We are still running a race that we're in danger of losing," says Curtis Chong, the National Federation of the Blind's director of technology. "People think we want to see the screen like [sighted people]. What we want to know is: What is the screen trying to tell us, and what are we supposed to do?"


Don't Shut Out Disabled Users

Tips for making sites more accessible:

Make sure all images carry text tags.

Make sure site supports popular screen readers, such as Freedom Scientific's Jaws for Windows and GW Micro's Window-Eyes.

Supply captions or alternative text for all streamed media content.

Avoid frames where possible.

If using Macromedia's Flash or Shockwave animation, make sure alternative tags are posted that let users bypass page.

Sources: WGBH Educational Foundation, Interactive Week