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
- 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
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)
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
- 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
- Degrade Gracefully
- Create designs which function even if the browser isn't the latest and
- 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
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.