Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

A Review Of: Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users with Disabilities

Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

A Review Of: Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users with Disabilities

Article excerpt

A Review of: Beyond ALT Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users with Disabilities

by Pernice Coyne and Jakob Nielsen

Fremont, California: Nielsen-Norman Group, 2001. PDF document.

148 Pages PDF format

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Summary of Beyond ALT Text

Beyond ALT Text is a 140-page report that details the results of Web usability testing that involved subjects with disabilities. Conducted by the leading Web usability firm in the U.S., the tests involved a total of 104 subjects and 19 Web sites. The subjects included people who are totally blind, people with low vision, and people with impaired mobility. There was also a control group of 20 individuals without disabilities. The subjects with disabilities used a variety of assistive or adaptive technologies. For example, subjects who were blind used either screen readers or refreshable Braille displays or both. Subjects with low vision used screen magnification software (supplemented in some cases by synthetic speech) or enlarged the display fonts on their computers. Subjects with mobility impairments used a number of different devices, including trackballs and footpads and other alternative input devices such as modified keyboards.

Most Valuable Things

Validation of claims made by disabled users and accessibility community about the pervasive inaccessibility of the Web: First, Beyond ALT Text offers vindication for people in the disability and accessibility communities, who have been saying for a long time that the Web is not very accessible for people with disabilities. That's not news, as the report acknowledges. What is news, though, is to have independent confirmation from the leading Web usability expert in the United States, who writes that he and his colleagues "were surprised by how poorly designed the Web is for people with low or no vision" (p. 10). Thank you for that, Dr. Nielsen!

Quantifying the Scale of the Problem

Perhaps even more important, this report gives us a way to begin measuring the scale of the problem. When Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (more commonly known as Section 508) in 1998, accessibility was defined in operational terms. To paraphrase slightly, we can say that a site is accessible when people with disabilities can access and use it as effectively as people without disabilities. In other words, the goal is parity between the experiences of people with and without disabilities.

Beyond ALT Text gives us, for the first time, a measure of how great the disparity between these two groups is.

Users with disabilities were about three times less likely to succeed in carrying out such routine Web tasks as searching for information and making purchases as users in the control group. (p. 3)

That's a huge discrepancy-and it's not as though the control group of users without disabilities did all that well either. The control group succeeded 78.2% of the time, as against about 26% for the users with disabilities (p. 4). Twenty-six percent is just plain embarrassing. But the figures for people using screen readers and screen magnifiers are even worse: 12.5% and 21.4%, respectively (p. 4). The authors are careful to point out that these figures do not reflect incompetence or inexperience on the users' part: test participants who were blind had been using computers and assistive technology for more than three years (p. 127), and many of them are employed as knowledge workers (p. 124). But even 78% is only a C+ where I come from. Nothing to write home happily about. And 78% is high, Nielsen says-typically, usability studies find that the success rate is between 40 and 60%. That's an F. The good news is that there's really no place to go but up.

Observations about how People use Screen Magnification Software and the Problems they Encounter

The devil's in the details, and the report provides compelling detail about the way people with low vision use screen magnification software and the problems they encounter. …

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