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Electronic Curbcuts: Universal Access for Everyone

Published 12/22/99 in Access: Where, Who, How, & Why?

by Cynthia D. Waddell

This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich from

With the filing of the recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint against America Online for failure to provide accessibility to members of the blind community, [1] policymakers and designers of technology and communication networks are reminded about the need to address digital barriers created by inattention to accessible web design. Although it may seem that the World Wide Web has been like the Wild Wild West – where there are no laws and each frontier web site is on its own - there are significant legal and practical reasons for ensuring inclusion and functionality through accessible web design.

By accessible web design, I am referring to the benefits of Universal Design that ensure that all users can access the information on the web page:

Universal design calls for the development of information systems flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the broadest range of users of computers and telecommunications equipment, regardless of age or disability.

September 1994 National Information Infrastructure White Paper by Susan Brummel, entitled "People with Disabilities and the NII: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Choice." [2]

Unless a web site incorporates accessible web design elements, significant populations will be locked out as the World Wide Web rapidly advances from a text-based communication format to a robust, graphical format embracing audio and video clip tools. The good news is that accessible web design enables populations without state-of-the-art technology to access the web and its information resources. Does this mean that all problems will go away? Not necessarily. There will be issues of bandwidth, for example. But even assuming that we have solved the connectivity challenge, the bad news is that technology investments can become readily useless if the community cannot access the web because of the absence of accessible web design features.

Accessible Web Design and Inclusion

As the Disability Access Coordinator for the City of San Jose, California, I am responsible for citywide compliance with state and federal disability access laws. The problem of inaccessible web sites first came to my attention in 1995 when a blind City Commissioner filed an ADA complaint in my office. The Commissioner complained that she could not access City Council documents as part of her advisory role to City Council since the documents were posted in portable document format (PDF).

The Commissioner’s screenreader was unable to access the documents since the text was hidden within the PDF image, which is effectively inaccessible to her screenreader. Screenreaders are an extremely helpful form of assistive computer technology, since web pages coded for accessible web design can be converted into Braille or synthesized speech by a screen reader audibly reading the page out loud to the user.

The problem for screenreaders is that inaccessible web page design either hides the text within images, frames, applets or animated gifs or renders the text unintelligently in table, columnar, or portable document format. Even on-line forms are inaccessible especially when they have been designed to prevent keyboard navigation and input. Whether the form is posted for school or event registration or on-line banking or shopping transactions, people with visual and/or mobility disabilities are faced with a significant barrier to participation.

But the impact is not limited to people with visual and mobility disabilities. People with specific learning disabilities are also finding that they can no longer access web pages audibly with screenreaders. Even people with cognitive disabilities are becoming lost due to the absence of navigation elements at web sites. Moreover, people with hearing disabilities cannot access the content of audiostreaming and videoclips posted on the Internet due to the absence of captioning.

After researching these digital barriers, I concluded that a minimum accessible web design standard was needed to manage ADA web access complaints and to ensure consistent implementation of ADA policies. By June 1996, my office developed the City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard. [3] Ten minimum requirements for accessible web design were identified with the recognition that the standard would evolve as new technologies and information system solutions emerged. As to the Commissioner’s complaint, it was resolved by requiring City departments to also post an accessible format such as text HTML if they are posting a PDF document. In addition, all hyperlinks to PDF documents are to include the word "PDF" within the hyperlink description.

By integrating the requirements of the ADA and applying Universal Design principles, we have ensured the widest public access to City government information and services. Just as curbcuts enable people using wheelchairs to navigate our City streets, "electronic curbcuts" enable people with disabilities to navigate our web site.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a policy ruling a few months later in September 1996 stating that web sites should be accessible to screenreaders and that both government and business must provide "effective communication" whenever they communicate through the Internet.[4] Subsequent student Internet complaints against universities and libraries have led the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education, to clarify what is meant by "effective communication." OCR has held that the three basic components of effective communication are: "timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability.[5]

Technology Crossroad: Will Everyone Have Access?

It now appears that a significant crossroad has been reached where our policies, technologies and purchasing choices will determine whether or not every person will benefit from and directly participate in the digital economy. The explosive growth of electronic commerce continues to erect new barriers to participation for people with disabilities as well as for anyone without the latest state of the art technology.

We are now seeing a significant shift from using the web to post essentially static information to using the web for dynamic web-based applications. At the same time, a fundamental shift has occurred in the design of information technology where functionality and its benefits once restricted to assistive computer technology is now being mainstreamed to enable a multi-modality architecture. What is needed is greater integration of the insights from assistive computer technology into web design as well as education and outreach on this issue for designers of technology and communication networks. [6]

Accessible web design provides the very functionality needed for dynamic, web-based transactions – whether or not it is for business transactions, voting or long-distance learning. In addition, many other benefits are emerging in the application of accessible web design. CD and videotapes can be archived through captioning and electronic textbooks can be made accessible. Even illiterate populations can access the web by listening to screenreaders audibly reading the text on the web page.

Perhaps the most significant benefit for the global economy is the fact that accessible web design enables low technology to access high technology; thereby contributing to a stable, sustainable electronic infrastructure. People with slow modems and low bandwidth can access the electronic content of the web even if they do not have the state- of-the-art computer equipment. Likewise, people with personal digital assistants and cell phones can access the content of web sites incorporating accessible web design features.

Recent Events Impacting Accessibility

U.S. civil rights laws impacting access to electronic and information technology are not always on the forefront of planning decisions. Yet, this past year has brought significant events concerning U.S. public policy and the removal of barriers to participation in the digital economy.

In April, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno directed that all federal agencies conduct self-evaluations of their electronic and information technology and report on the extent of accessibility for people with disabilities – including web site design. [7]

In May, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the release of the first stable specification for designing accessible web sites by issuing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 as a recommendation. [8] Not only has the W3C been active in developing access toolkits and validators as part of their Web Accessibility Initiative, but a free web accessibility tool has been developed as a first level diagnostic by the Center for Applied Special Technology at[9]

The month of May also brought the first national U.S. conference on the impact of the digital economy convened at the direction of President Clinton.[10] It was a privilege to be the only speaker at the conference addressing the impact of the digital economy on people with disabilities and to present my commissioned paper on law and policy, "The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation."[11]  In September, this paper was selected for re-publication in World Markets in 2000 for the World Economic Development Congress and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Summit. [12]

And lastly, in August the first long-distance learning guidelines addressing accessible web requirements were announced by the Chancellor of the state of California Community College system. These model guidelines were created in response to legal requirements mandated by the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education. [13]

International Events Impacting Accessibility

There is a growing realization in the international community that implementation of accessible web design is necessary for a sustainable community. Although the United States, Canada, and Australia have been addressing this issue, more countries are now actively addressing the problem. Three recent developments are of particular interest.

For example, in July, 1999, web accessibility was addressed in a United Kingdom report entitled "Boosting the UK Digital Economy- a virtual think-tank." [14] This report summarized a virtual debate that took place over a three-day period in June 1999 involving "a group of around 80 top-level experts from all sectors of the UK economy." It also presented a series of forty-four recommendations for action by government, business and others to promote the development of a "fair, open and competitive digital economy in the UK." (See Report Introduction). Three of the recommendations (31, 32 and 33) were issued to specifically address people with disabilities:

31: The government must lead by example by requiring that all public service web sites, kiosks and other electronic services are fully accessible to people with disabilities. The requirement should also be built into all procurement exercises where public services are contracted out or private services bought into the public sector.

32: The technology industry- and in particular the digital TV and mobile phone industries - must design all products according to the principles of Design for All- optimising access by all by allowing the greatest possible degree of customisation. Physical controls should be simple and easy-to-use.

33: All web site developers should familiarise themselves with the principles of accessible web site design and where possible ensure their sites have options to be rendered in multiple ways including versions without many different colours or images. [15]

Also in July, the country of Portugal enacted a national law mandating accessibility in the design of government websites.[16] Of particular interest is the following statement by Parliament to the government of Portugal:

The Assembly of the Republic, through the Commission of Constitutional Affairs, Rights, Liberties and Guaranties, considers that the full accessibility of the information made available by the Government and other public services on the Internet is a fundamental condition to the promotion of universality and equality in the exercise of the fundamental rights of citizens, specifically the ones related to their participation in the civic life. [17]

And lastly, in September, the Attorney General for the country of Australia requested that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission investigate access to electronic commerce and other new service delivery technologies by older Australians and people with disabilities.[18] The Commission has developed an Issues Paper and seeks to identify: [19]

  • areas of information and service provision in which equal access is problematic
  • the range of technologies that affect access
  • the types of barriers to access that currently exist current best practice strategies for addressing issues of access. [20]


This article has briefly highlighted some of the national and international activity addressing this effort. In More Than Screen Deep: Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation's Information Infrastructure,[21] it is pointed out that the spread of the information infrastructure throughout the global economy and social fabric requires interfaces for everyone. If multiple methods for access and choice are built into our global information infrastructure, then everyone can participate.

As a person with a disability, I join stakeholders in supporting a networked community that accommodates difference. By addressing the need for effective communication, we will fuel the expansion of technological innovations and creative solutions. By addressing this universal need, I believe we will arrive at a sustainable information infrastructure.

Therefore, it appears that a significant benefit of accessible web design is that it enables a multi-modality architecture. Mobility is promoted and people can have access to information and web-based transactions regardless of their location or whether or not they utilize high technology or low technology. As pointed out by Amy Friedlander, it took another 20 to 30 years after electricity was understood to invent a standard plug into which a variety of devices with new applications could be realized.[22] Perhaps we are beginning to see how accessible web design can provide that ubiquitous socket connection.


[1] See

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a perspective on information technology innovations that were orginally developed by, or in support of, people with disabilities that wound up benefiting everyone, please see Steve Jacobs, "Section 255: Fueling the Creation of New Electronic Curbcuts" found at

[7] See

[8] See 

[9] Current tools for accessible web design can be found at the following websites: W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Existing Evaluation and Repair Tools;  the HTML Writers Guild AWARE (Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education) ; and the State of Washington Achieving Website Accessibility in State Government

[10] See

[11] See

[12] See

[13] See

[14] See

[15] Ibid.

[16] See

[17] Ibid.

[18] See

[19] See

[20] See

[21] See

[22] Amy Friedlander, Power and Light: Electricity in the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, 1870-1940 (Reston, VA: Corporation for National Research Initiatives, 1996), 75. See

Released: December 22, 1999 

iMP Magazine,

© Copyright 1999. Cynthia D. Waddell. All rights reserved.

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