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Patrick J. Burke
Blindness and Accessibility Analyst
Adaptive Technology Specialist and Accessibility Analyst
The unprecedented expansion of the World Wide Web has created
a revolution in information access for persons with and without
disabilities. This expansion has taken place in an atmosphere of
great freedom. However - except for the most basic conventions of
how browser programs should interpret HTML (HyperText Markup
Language) - this freedom often appears more like chaos.
Promulgation of usage standards becomes difficult as HTML editors
try to make it easy for anyone to create a Web page. Novice
designers concentrate on making pages that look good (at least on
their own screen) without regard for the truly universal nature
of the Web. On the other hand, government and other public
entities are also establishing a Web presence. This trend raises
the key issues of creating pages accessible to all users -
including those with disabilities - and of formulating legally
At UCLA's Disabilities and Computing Program (DCP), involvement in information access solutions pre-dates the dominance of the Web. However, UCLA's decentralized computing environment presents a number of challenges and requires a flexible access strategy. Academic and administrative departments generally have independent Web services, making standardization of access solutions difficult. There is no campus-wide policy on Web accessibility and even if there were, it would be of limited effectiveness. In this environment we have found cooperation and collaboration to be the most effective strategies in working to achieve accessible Web sites.
In this diverse setting, one successful campus-wide project is Bruin OnLine (BOL), which includes a dialup network, campus E-mail system, and software CD-ROM. This CD can be purchased by students or others on campus and contains site-licensed, freeware and shareware applications for Internet access (such as Netscape, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Eudora Pro, etc.). This gives UCLA’s Disabilities and Computing Program a core group of mainstream applications to support. We can then focus on finding adaptive solutions that work with these programs and train our clients to use them effectively. In turn this gives us a yardstick for Web access by UCLA community members, since they will almost certainly be using Bruin OnLine applications along with adaptive technology.
We have sought a strategy that will not inhibit research and experimentation at UCLA, but that will provide access on the broadest possible basis. Accordingly we have devised a three-tier system for prioritizing and evaluating the accessibility of on-campus Web sites
Experimental sites (in computer science, engineering, etc.) are encouraged to add accessibility features as soon as technology makes it feasible; Sites intended for use by UCLA staff, students and faculty are tested with the Bruin OnLine software packages and the adaptive technology we support in order to make them accessible to our clients; UCLA public information sites are strongly encouraged to meet the highest possible accessibility standards for maximum participation by a worldwide audience. With this background, our main focus will be to describe the process we have developed to provide tailored feedback for groups or individuals wishing to design accessible Web sites at UCLA. Collaboration is the key, since even a conscientious Web designer may not be aware of what will work with adaptive technology, and the purpose of a page may not be immediately obvious to an adaptive technology user. We serve as an advanced user-testing group making sure that the site's purpose is clear and that the structures it contains are usable, both in general and specifically with adaptive software. In-person meetings and demonstrations allow rapid testing of various design options and give designers a clearer idea of what the adaptive needs are. Demonstrations using a designer's own pages have proven to be the most effective tool in gaining cooperation and support.
Collaboration is also essential because many sites are not simply Web pages but Web systems, using third-party software to generate HTML automatically from information databases. Our staff cannot analyze all the possible software or scripting solutions that may be involved, but we can work with systems programmers to let them know what is necessary for access. It is also critical to demonstrate and discuss features of a site that work well, so that they can be preserved in the next inevitable re-design. The Bobby accessibility tool (http://www.cast.org/bobby) helps provide rather dramatic and thorough feedback on what is or is not accessible on a page.
As a final step in the accessibility analysis process we produce written reports that summarize the findings of our staff and the resulting solutions that have been worked out in collaboration with the site designers. This provides valuable information on solutions that may be repeatable in future projects, and it gives each group a quantitative measure of what it has achieved. We also do follow-up on sites as they continue to evolve.
The primary problems that we have faced have not generally reflected unwillingness to help or even lack of awareness of what the W3C Accessibility Guidelines are. Instead we have mainly encountered difficulties relating to systems considerations. If crucial early decisions have already been made, such as an institutional commitment to a particular graphical "look and feel,” or to a specific method of generating Web pages on the fly, then the possibilities for making a site accessible may become limited. While we are committed to the principles of one universal design being the best solution, text-only or other alternative means of displaying content may be necessary in these cases. It is also important to recognize the Web designer's sense of ownership of a site, as well as to avoid making criticism of the design into a personal affront. Since designers often fear that accessibility will mean tampering with the appearance of their pages, it is critical to show that this is not the case, or to show the tangible problems caused by the design choice. Once convinced, these designers can become allies in working for accessibility.
We also carry on a number of efforts to get more people interested in Web accessibility. Our most effective (although most labor-intensive) means of promotion is the live demonstration of adaptive technology. We make these presentations to raise awareness of the existence of adaptive technology in general and Web access issues in particular. We discuss the adaptive technology revolution of the last decade and invite Web authors to be part of the continuing information access revolution, stressing the parallels between adaptive solutions and emerging mobile or otherwise non-standard Web browsing technologies.
There are also a number of Web technology and instructional technology organizations on campus. We raise access issues whenever possible at the meetings and on the E-mail discussion lists of these groups, keeping the effect of new technologies on disability access as an issue on the table. We also participate in campus technology fairs and other events with Web-related components, raising the visibility of Web users with disabilities.
The above activities also serve to educate our campus Web community, updating them on new developments and keeping them interested in Web accessibility. In addition, we maintain a Web accessibility resource page (http://www.dcp.ucla.edu/resources/accessibility.htm). This page contains links to standard reference documents and tools, such as the W3C's Web Access Initiative (WAI) Guidelines, the latest accessibility information from Microsoft, Sun and other sources, and the Bobby accessibility tool. Since we receive many requests for information in a simpler form than the WAI Guidelines, we attempt to highlight specific WAI documents in areas such as SMIL, and also provide links to other accessibility tips and tutorials. Another section of this page gathers information from the area of usability analysis and research (such as Jakob Nielsen's site at http://www.useit.com). There is often substantial overlap between usability findings and accessibility needs, when, for example, animations on a site or complex page layout turn out to distract and confuse a large majority of users. Thinking of Web sites in terms of what is efficient or usable for all frequently benefits users with disabilities. Finally, we include links on our resource page to any new tools that can enhance Web accessibility.
While the legal imperative and the right to information access are becoming well-established, our experience at UCLA’s Disabilities and Computing Program has shown the power of involving Webmasters in the process of finding accessible solutions and collaborating with them to make them work. As document sharing and on-line collaboration develop as important uses for Web-based technologies, the ability to cooperate to solve accessibility problems in ever-changing situations will also increase in importance. These solutions will not only benefit persons with disabilities but anyone not using a standard mouse-monitor-keyboard system at any given time. By fully participating in this process, persons with disabilities can take a leadership role in defining the Web of the future.
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