2000 Conference Proceedings

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Bobby 4.0

Michael Cooper
CAST, Inc.
39 Cross St.
Peabody, MA 01960
mcooper@cast.org 
http://www.cast.org/bobby

Introduction

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) was founded to study and develop ways technology can be used to enable people with disabilities, especially in educational environments, to participate in the mainstream. In recent years, CAST has refined the concept of Universal Design for Learning (TM) (UDL). With respect to technology, Universal Design refers to software and hardware features that are created with a wide range of users in mind. Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for the design of systems from which people gain information, such as educational curricula, software products, or web sites.

While developing universally designed software products, CAST found that products using Web pages rely in turn on Universal Design features of those pages. To help authors incorporate those features into their pages, CAST created Bobby (SM) (http://www.cast.org/bobby/). This free software examines the structure of HTML pages and notes technical or design issues that may present barriers to persons with disabilities who access the site. The tool has helped thousands of users and organizations make significant improvements to their Web sites.

CAST is now developing Bobby version 4.0, which will have a number of major enhancements that will enable it to assist a larger group of web developers than before. Some features are mentioned below; a beta version is expected by the time of the conference and there will be an in-depth presentation of its new features.

Bobby

The technology now exists to support inclusion of many different types of people in ways that were previously unconsidered, yet that technology is not always used to its maximum benefit. For individuals with visual disabilities, for example, the Web's highly graphical environment poses serious problems. Even with a screen reader, a tool used by individuals with visual impairments to translate written text into spoken text, Web pages can still be inaccessible when screen readers cannot navigate text in columns or recognize images. For individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, multimedia and audio elements of Web pages are inaccessible without such accommodations as captioning or text descriptions.

Applying the principles of Universal Design to a web site requires awareness of and commitment to the issues. Equally importantly, it requires enough applied understanding of these issues to create effective universally designed web sites. That is, an author must know the design principles that make a web site universally designed, and the author must know technically how to realize those principles on the web site. To help bring this awareness about, CAST launched Bobby in August, 1996. Bobby is a free interactive tool offered on CAST's web site that analyzes an HTML page with respect to the WAI's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and translates them into instructions for improving its accessibility. After typing in a URL, Bobby delivers a full report within seconds. This report optionally includes the original page, with "Bobby-hat" icons that visually show the location of errors.

Bobby then explains the factors that limit the site's use and recommends ways to fix those problems. In the report, the factors are presented as a list of error types. For each type, Bobby identifies the parts of the page on which it is found. An extended explanation of the cause of the error and means of repairing it is available by clicking on the error's title. The errors are organized by three levels of priority - Priority 1 issues are the most important to address for accessibility. Within the priority levels, the report is also grouped into items that it can evaluate automatically, and descriptions of items that require human judgment to determine an appropriate response. While any web page will require an amount of subjective determination, Bobby is able to address many of the most numerous access issues.

Bobby is designed to be an educational tool that teaches Web designers about Web accessibility. As Web designers use Bobby, they not only learn how to address problems within their own site, they also learn skills that they can apply to site design in the future. Bobby offers concrete design suggestions and is linked to other sites that discuss access issues. The more one uses Bobby, the less likely one is to need it in the future, as accessibility issues and their solutions become integrated into one's Web design at the outset.

New Features of Bobby 4.0 Until the release of version 3.1, Bobby supported versions of the WAI guidelines that were still in draft form and subject to revision. The guidelines have now become a stable W3C Recommendation, enabling us to focus on improving the depth of support. CAST is working with the WAI Evaluation and Repair Working Group (http://www.w3.org/WAI/ER/) to define a set of technical approaches to accessibility evaluation that support the Guidelines as completely as possible. While the number of items Bobby examines on a web page is growing as a result, we are also working on ways to simplify the presentation of errors on a page so the user is not overwhelmed.

Another important component of Universal Design in the modern world is internationalization and multiculturalism. Already, Bobby has been in the position of providing English-only reports for non-English web pages from around the world. It is important that Bobby be able to examine non-English pages in a manner appropriate to the language and without misinterpreting non-Latin character encodings, as well as to provide reports in that language (or another language of the user's choice). Bobby 4.0 will have this support in a single international version that can change language at the user's request. Support for specific languages will be in the form of accessory modules that can be added to Bobby with little or no user configuration required, or by simply selecting a checkbox on the online version of Bobby.

The quality and thoroughness of page examination will be enhanced to give Bobby a more complete view of a web page. As Bobby is enhanced, new types of optional checks will be added to Bobby to expand its role as a Universal Web Page Design Evaluation tool. Some check types under consideration include spell checking, page readability, and site layout and visual design. Some of these are topics related to human-computer interaction principles about which a larger understanding is now reaching the Web development community. Analysis and validation of these issues will become as important as accessibility evaluation in the near future.

Bobby will also broaden the context of its use by providing a complete API that will allow other developers to integrate Bobby into their products. This will be of value to developers of page authoring programs who will be able to incorporate Bobby's features directly into their product. This will also allow the development of products that use Bobby's core functionality to accomplish different goals; for example, Bobby is currently expected to be integrated with an interactive repair tool that steps the user through the process of fixing problems that Bobby itself has merely identified and explained.


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