Levelling the Road Ahead: Guidelines for the Creation of WWW Pages Accessible to Blind and Visually Handicapped Users

Article excerpt

Traditionally, it has been the role of the librarian to locate, select, organize, and disseminate information resources. With the advent of online services, this role is now being extended to include providing information about electronic resources in addition to those in print.

For blind and visually handicapped computer users, the availability of electronic information has presented an even greater opportunity than it has for those who are able to read printed material. Prior to this, only a very limited amount of reading material had been available in an accessible format. In fact, texts, such as large reference works, have never been accessible to visually impaired users. For this reason, blind people are finding the burgeoning online services of numerous public and specialized libraries to be of great interest. Librarians should expect a growing number of people who have heretofore not been part of their library's patron population to avail themselves of the library's online offerings.

The person whose vision is not good enough to allow the reading of a standard computer screen can gain access to a computer system via refreshable braille display, synthetic speech, or large print. If a braille display or speech synthesizer is used, accompanying screen-reading software is also required. Numerous software and hardware options are available for large-print access. For this discussion, the focus will be on issues affecting blind persons who use speech or braille access to a computer. Generally, access issues for large-print users are less complex, and very little, if any, accommodation is required to meet their needs.

With the expansion of the Internet, blind and visually impaired people have been able to directly access a wide variety of information from thousands of online resources. However, with the increasing popularity of the World Wide Web (WWW), unique and sometimes insurmountable obstacles have arisen that, more and more often, are barring this newly acquired access. The World Wide Web (WWW)

The power and flexibility of the World Wide Web lie in its ability to present information in multiple formats (text, audio, video, graphic, etc.). However, the features that provide power and elegance for some users present barriers to others. For example, services that depend solely on graphic images are completely inaccessible to blind users. Careful design and coding of information can alleviate many of these access barriers.

For blind users, some inroads have been made into the use of graphically based access methods, but the current access still permits only a rather cumbersome and restrictive use of graphics browsers like Mosaic and Netscape. A far more straightforward access opportunity is afforded to blind users by text-based browsers such as Lynx. Since actually "viewing" a graphic element is not usually an option for most blind people, the only possible advantages of using a graphical WWW browser are the instant availability of audio playback, an occasional opportunity to move through an inaccessible image that would halt a text-based browser in its tracks, and the possibility of seeking additional information about a graphic image from a sighted person.

It is not just blind and visually handicapped computer users who may have a need for access options. It is essential to remember the wide range of users you are designing for when creating WWW pages at a library. Library patrons who can connect to the WWW typically range from those with high-speed connections, to those with lower-speed modem connections, and even those with no more than text-based telnet access to the Web. Although it may not always be practical to design for those users with the most limited access, it is still a good idea to remember that these users exist and acknowledge them through warning messages or by creating alternate paths.

A WWW document does not need to be limited only to text to be accessible. …