1997 Conference Proceedings

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DESIGNING AN ACCESSIBLE WORLD FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

Doyle E. Burnett
Special Education Service Agency
2217 East Tudor Road, Suite 1
Anchorage, AK. 99507 Voice/Message: (907) 562-7372
Internet: dburnett@sesa.org


Just around the corner will be the "so-called" standardization of Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) 3.0. As companies like Netscape Communications and Microsoft battle over the latest "plug-ins" and fancy programming oddities that can wield them to the top of the heap in the fight for browser superiority. For the community of persons who live with disabilities, and most especially those persons with blindness, this battle has a potentially vital impact upon the ways that World Wide Web Pages are now being accessed by screen readers and other alternative methods of computer access. Just when alternative access methods are learned by computer users with disabilities and the vendors of screen readers and other alternative access methods have "de-bugged" their devices or software to accommodate the changes, the browser developers change the rules. The computer set-up or device that worked quite well yesterday does not work today.

Although the developers of World Wide Web browsers are partly at fault when it comes to the difficulties of "surfing the net" via the use of screen readers and other access methods, it is really up to the individual web page developers to make their pages user friendly and accessible. As complex as the more advanced HTML programming becomes, there are still many ways for web page developers to be assured their messages are being delivered to the largest audience possible. How many times have I listened to television commercials that are trying to sell a product by having you pull out your credit card and "call the number at the bottom of your screen." Way too many times, but that's okay as these commercials prevent my wife from calling and using her credit card. So this is the issue of loosing a potential customer because the message was not accessible to a population of people who (believe it or not) watch as much television as persons without vision loss.

So, yes, there is the issue of losing customers by not reaching a potential audience, but there is a bigger issue that lurks. The issue is that of access to information that is produced by your government and placed on the Internet. That information, if presented properly, can be read by persons using screen readers and other alternative methods of access to the Internet. If the information is not presented properly, persons with disabilities may not have access. Access to information becomes the key issue and teaching web page developers techniques to make their pages accessible becomes the job of persons with disabilities and others who care about this issue. Of course, persons with a sole private and non-governmental interest in producing web pages can do what they like with the direction and development of their World Wide Web sites.

The most simple way to make web pages accessible is to develop a secondary set of pages that are "text- only" based. To take this one step further, making the text only version of the pages the default (they are what the reader gets to first), the reader gets the information much more quickly as there is no need to wait for graphics to load onto the computer screen before the document can be read. When the reader gets to your text only page, they can be given an option to view the graphic equivalent. Thoughtful web page developers generally have the default set to the graphic version with an option of going to a text-only set of pages which is at least a step in the right direction. It is this author's opinion that governmental agencies who have elected to present their information on the Internet should opt for a text-only set of pages as their default, with options to view graphics as a choice. If everyone did this, overall access to the Internet in terms of speed would probably increase ten fold. Well, it would at least require less time to transfer data.

As is the case with most issues that concern the community of all disabled persons, there are laws that speak to some of the issues, as the ones discussed here, but those same laws do not get acted upon without input from those effected. If you are able to access pages that are "difficult" to navigate and can manage to find the "hypertext link" to the e-mail address of the "webmaster," write to them and express your concern about the difficult nature of navigating their pages. Many times, agencies have never been made aware of the navigation difficulties restricted upon persons who use alternative means of access to the Internet.

Writing an article like this would not be fair without some discussion centering around simple developmental solutions to some of the many access problems encountered by persons with disabilities. The following are some ideas for web page developers to consider when trying to make web pages that target a wide range of potential audiences.

  1. Make a text-only version of the pages (use it as the default).
  2. Provide a text-only version of your page(s) and locate its link at the top of your home or default page. If you elect to not use an alternative text version, there are some additional thoughts:
  3. Use the alternative "ALT" tag to describe your graphic or picture.
  4. Limit the number of graphics used.
  5. Give an explanation of the graphic in a caption form.
  6. If using sounds or speech, provide written dialogue for the hearing impaired.
  7. Avoid "anchored" links that take readers to the middle of a page without a means to return to where they started from.
  8. When providing links, put them in a vertical plane (the Shift+\ or bar can be used between active links on the same line as a recognized method).
  9. If links are within written text, be aware that various screen sizes may effect that link with its parts being on more than one line of text.
  10. Pages that can be accessed from more than one location need to have links back to all the same pages that brought the reader there in the first place. If the page is long, these connections "back" should be at the top and bottom of the pages.
  11. If you use "web maps," provide a text alternative to link screen reader users.
  12. Do not use text wrapping or tables...screen readers CANNOT handle these formats.
  13. Forms can be handled by some screen readers and some individual alternative access users, but avoid using them if possible as they are difficult to navigate.
  14. Avoid the use of blinking text or "animated GIFs," especially if you do not offer a text alternative version of your page

These are but a few suggestions that will help web page developers in the creation of World Wide Web pages and sites that are as accessible to as many people as possible. It should be noted that there is no way to assure that web pages will be accessible through the use of ALL Internet browsers. The text-only approach is by far the most reliable, but at the same time the most difficult to maintain as it means creating a totally separate set of pages that match in navigational structure those of a graphic nature.

There are a number of sites on the World Wide Web that offer HTML conventions that help web page developers make their web pages more accessible to those persons with disabilities. The addresses listed below are suggested as possible links where web page developers interested in issues pertaining to web accessibility can gain further information.


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