TECHNOLOGY: Web Page Accessibility

Article excerpt

THERE ARE some 30 million people with disabilities in the U.S. If you have created Web pages without thinking about how accessible they will be for these people, you may be unintentionally locking them out of your site. I am certainly no expert on accessibility, but I thought I should at least know something about it, and I'm passing along what I've learned so far with a few suggestions for how you can learn more about the topic. I will also discuss a great website that has a free online test for accessibility.

But accessibility is a wider issue than just accessibility for people with disabilities. It also becomes an issue as more and more users are accessing the Web using small-screen, low-power devices such as cell phones and small PDAs. Some estimates are that mobile users of the Web will be the majority of users in the next five years or so.

There are three main sets of accessibility standards: the government's Section 508 guidelines, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, and the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) standards. Undoubtedly, various professional associations devoted to people with disabilities have position statements and standards of their own. The government's 508 standards may carry the force of law. I say "may" because I believe the matter is still being argued in various courts of law. Some large websites, such as AOL and MSN.com, have come under pressure in the last few years to abide by Section 508. It is doubtful that small sites will ever be forced to comply with Section 508, but thinking about the standards as you create Web pages is certainly easier than retrofitting a site's pages. And many of the standards are remarkably simple and easy to accommodate.

Of the three sets of standards listed above, the government's Section 508 standards are the easiest with which to comply. The W3C standards are listed in three priority levels. Satisfying all three priority levels would be difficult. The Nielsen Norman Group is a consulting firm that devised its over 100 standards after doing large-scale user tests of various commercial websites, such as the American Airlines site. Section 508 standards and information about them are available at www.access-board.gov.

Here is the government's summary of Section 508.

Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22) The criteria for Web-based technology and information are based on access guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Many of these provisions ensure access for people with vision impairments who rely on various assistive products to access computer-based information, such as screen readers, which translate what's on a computer screen into automated audible output, and refreshable Braille displays. Certain conventions, such as verbal tags or identification of graphics and format devices, like frames, are necessary so that these devices can "read" them for the user in a sensible way. The standards do not prohibit the use of website graphics or animation. Instead, the standards aim to ensure that such information is also available in an accessible format. Generally, this means use of text labels or descriptors for graphics and certain format elements. (HTML code already provides an "Alt Text" tag for graphics which can serve as a verbal descriptor for graphics.) This section also addresses the usability of multimedia presentations, image maps, style sheets, scripting languages, applets and plug-ins, and electronic forms.

The best summary of the W3C "priority one" guidelines I found was at www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/. These 10 tips have to do with many of the same elements mentioned in the Section 508 summary above. Here, in nontechnical language, is the advice contained in the tips. Use real text instead of images or pictures of text. If you use pictures of anything, even of text, provide captions or descriptions. Give all pages a descriptive title at the top. …