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bNine Questions with Kynn Bartlett


Accessibility expert and ICDRI advisory board member Kynn Bartlett was interviewed by journalist Mike Martin of Science News Week for an article on Newsfactor Networks. Here are Mike's questions and Kynn's complete answers.

1) What is website accessibility? Why is it important?

Accessibility is simply the process of ensuring that you don't create artificial and arbitrary barriers to access in the way you design a Web site or other information resource. In simple terms, it's making sure your site can be used by anyone, whether they have a disability or not.

As more and more services become available online, from both the public and private sectors, there is a risk of creating a near- insurmountable barrier -- forming a "digital divide." On one side will be the rich, powerful, and non-disabled, and on the other will be the poor...and the people with disabilities. Web accessibility is not only important, but it is vitally necessary to address these problems before they're exacerbated and the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" continues to widen.

Today you can buy a book, online; you can register to vote, online; you can hunt for a job, online; you can keep up on news reports from around the world, online; you can do research and study, online; you can publish your opinions and personal experiences, online. Assuming that you're lucky, of course. If you're disabled, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to use the Internet to its full potential -- because the people who are enabling the Web for the rest of the world simply don't think about people with disabilities.

2) What sorts of disabilities do accessible websites address?

The goal of accessible Web design is to address the needs of everyone, including those without disabilities as well as users with special needs. A well-constructed Web site is an accessible Web site; the benefits accrue to everyone.

The specific audiences which benefit most from accessible design are those who regularly encounter difficulties using Web sites designed to exclude them. For example, highly graphical sites which refuse to provide text labels for images will be difficult or impossible to use if you're blind. Sites with multimedia which refuse to supply transcripts or captions for audio will deny you access to information if you're deaf. All-text Web sites which refuse to illustrate complex concepts will shut you out if you've got a cognitive or reading disability.

Consistent application of the methodology and techniques of accessible Web design will guarantee access for as broad an audience as possible.

3) If a blind person bought a standard computer and Internet browser set up, could that person jump right on line, or would they need additional equipment?

A blind person who walks into a store, puts down $1000 or so for a new computer, and goes home and sets it up is not yet ready to get on the Internet, or even use the computer at all. To properly use this new system, she's going to need to spend even more money. A screenreader is the software used to provide basic access to the computer's functions by reading screen prompts and information out loud; a typical screenreader will cost her between $500 and $1300 dollars. Does she want a Braille display? That's anywhere from $2000 to $5000 (or more) and will give her a 40 or 80 characters. For comparison, my old Apple ][ monitor displayed 40 characters across -- but also 25 rows down. A Braille display has only one row.

4) What kinds of website accessibility tools are standard with off the shelf computers?

An off-the-shelf computer, such as one equipped with Microsoft's Windows operating system or Apple's OS X 10.2, will support a number of features which increase accessibility. For example, text magnification can be used by people with visual disabilities, alerts can be made to flash visibly as well as auditorally, and most programs can be controlled by keyboard. The built-in accessibility features of a computer are generally sufficient for people with minor disabilities which don't greatly impact their ability to use the Web.

However, people with more pronounced disabilities are going to need specialized software and hardware such as screenreaders, improved magnification software, or pointing devices tied to virtual keyboards. Disability analysts can assist in helping someone to know what options are available to meet their needs for computer access.

5) What kinds of software are available for enhanced website accessibility? What is the cost of this software, and who (what vendors) provide it?

There are two types of software which can increase the accessibility of the Web -- those which help the Web page designer, and those which help the Web page user.

Software for Web page designers provides essential testing and correcting of the page's HTML, validating that the proper codes have been provided to allow access by assistive technologies. Examples of this type of software includes Bobby (Watchfire, $99, bobby.watchfire.com), A-Prompt (University of Toronto, free, aprompt.snow.utoronto.ca), LIFT (Useable Net, $299, usablenet.com), and InFocus (SSB Technologies, $1,795, ssbtechnologies.com).

Assistive technology software is most commonly for people with visual impairments, and includes the screenreaders JAWS for Windows (Freedom Scientific, $895 or $1,195 (Windows NT or 2000), www.freedomscientific.com) and Window-Eyes (GW Micro, $595, www.gwmicro.com), as well as screen magnification programs.

6) About how many persons with disabilities access the web?

The exact numbers of people with disabilities who use the Web is unknown, because you don't have to state your capabilities before logging on to the Net. Surveys of Web users in the late '90s showed 8% of respondents indicated a disability of some kind. In the U.S., it's estimated that around 20% of the population has some disability, but it's also remember that the barriers to computer use and Internet use -- including financial hurdles -- make it harder for disabled people to get online.

In terms of population percentages, the disabled community is lagging behind the general population by about 10% when you consider the percentage of the total group online. However, once they get online, people with disabilities often spend more time than average using the services available on the Internet.

The bottom line is that nobody knows for sure how many people onlnie have disabilities, but we do know that there are many, and the numbers are growing every day.

7) In your opinion, what are some highly accessible websites? What are some that are not highly-accessible?

I will pass on this one -- accessibility depends on the individual, and different people will find different sites to be more or less accessible depending on their needs. The list of sites which I find inaccessible (or accessible) -- as a person without any disabilities affecting my use of the Web -- is not particularly germaine to this discussion.

8) What can web developers do to enhance Internet accessibility? Why is alt-tagging a web picture important?

To enhance the accessibility of their Web sites, Web developers need to follow several basic principles of accessibility:

Follow Web Standards
Learn the HTML and CSS languages, and use them as they're meant to be used.
Degrade Gracefully
Create designs which function even if the browser isn't the latest and greatest version.
Provide Meaningful Alternatives
If someone can't see your image or hear your sound bite, they need an alternative version which is accessible.
Separate Presentation From Content
For example, don't highlight important information only by the color of the text; also provide non-visual indicators.
Write for Comprehension
Make sure that your words can be easily understood without confusion.
Be Flexible!
Understand the needs of your audience and respect the diversity and adaptability that is inherent in the World Wide Web.
9) Is website accessibility being adequately addressed by the high-tech community? If not, why?

The need for accessible Web design is not being adequately addressed by the high-tech industry; too many times "accessibility" is looked at as an afterthought, as something which can be tacked on after the fact. Much of the current progress toward accessibility is focused on end-of-the-process testing and evaluation, rather than the notion of designing for all audiences from the start and making accessible design a core part of the process itself. Web accessibility has been misunderstood to be a list of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" checkpoints, instead of a mindset leading to an inclusive methodology.

There are a few companies which have jumped on the accessibility bandwagon, mostly because of the U.S. government's woefully inadequate Section 508 regulations. These companies have become overnight converts to Web accessibility because they see profit potential in meeting very specific requirements laid down by the government for Federal Web sites.

However, this is like treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease -- accessibility has to grow from the very beginning of the Web creation process. Awareness needs to be cultivated among Web developers, and that needs to be translated into real progress in the accessibility of Web content. Blind adherence to regulatory standards won't cut it if someone who is disabled just can't use a site.

The biggest companies talk a good talk, but do they design a good site? Has accessibility improved in the last few years? To some degree, yes -- things are not quite as bad as they were just a handful of years ago. However, there's still much to be done when over 90% of the members of the World Wide Web Consortium -- the industry body which creates Web standards and accessibility guidelines -- are unable to create Web sites which meet the bare minimums for standards compliance.

Kynn Bartlett is Chief Technologist of Idyll Mountain Internet and volunteer director of the AWARE Center. He also writes books, including Teach Yourself CSS in 24 Hours.

Mike Martin has written over 200 articles for United Press International, as well as Newsfactor, Bloomberg, WorldNetDaily, Powered, MensNewsDaily, and other publications. He specializes in explaining difficult material to lay readers and non-specialists in finance, law, medicine, biotechnology, and science.




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