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Achieving Automated Web Site Accessibility

Chris Jones, SSB Technologies

Web site accessibility is quickly gaining public recognition as an important issue. People are not only being made aware that laws such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to web sites. They are also learning that there are many business advantages to having an accessible site. Accessible sites reach more users (be they clients, customers, employees or constituents), they translate gracefully into foreign languages, they are accessible to handheld devices (such as cellular phones or Palm Pilots with Internet access), and they create a favorable public image. An accessible web site is therefore not only a legal "need", but also a "want". However, many organizations are overwhelmed by the thought of retrofitting their entire site and training engineers to develop future sites in an accessible manner. They do not want to relive Y2K. Recognizing this problem, SSB Technologies developed automated software tools designed to make the process of retrofitting existing web sites and developing future accessible pages more time and cost efficient. These tools reduce the time necessary to diagnose and retrofit a web site by up to 90% and 75% respectively. This paper demonstrates how these tools are used in practice by an organization wanting to make its web site accessible.


TypicalClient is a fictitious company that uses its web site to offer general information about the company as well as specific details on products and an online store. It uses its intranet extensively for internal operations such as company documents, benefits programs, and departmental projects. Aware that its sites may be excluding people with disabilities, some of whom are employees, TypicalClient contacts SSB Technologies to help retrofit its web site and develop processes to ensure that future web development is performed in an accessible manner.

To begin the accessibility retrofitting process, SSB Technologies uses its tools to perform a thorough Diagnostic Report on TypicalClient’s web site and intranet. Using this report, SSB and TypicalClient work together to develop a prioritized Retrofitting Plan focusing on the most important and least accessible pages of the web site. The plan recommends that the splash page and its links, along with the product information and online store are the highest priority. For the intranet, TypicalClient decides to focus on the departmental projects and benefits pages.

The Tools

TypicalClient’s web developers will use InSight, SSB’s diagnostic tool, to test web pages to determine accessibility violations. InSight scrolls through HTML code, highlighting and explaining violations as they are found. The SSB team shows how the tool tests for violations of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). InSight has the capability to create XML reports on any number of pages, which can be used by project managers to determine which development teams are responsible for addressing the different accessibility violations. The tool has extended functionality allowing it to diagnose local directories as well as remote ones. The reports can be customized to cover particular sections or pages of a web site in varying degrees of depth. As a diagnostic tool, InSight offers just-in-time learning that gives a textual description of the problem. This allows developers to understand not only what the accessibility violation is, but how and why it is inaccessible, giving them necessary knowledge for developing future pages in an accessible manner.

InFocus is SSB’s retrofitting tool, which TypicalClient’s developers will use to make their existing web site accessible. InFocus operates by highlighting accessibility violations within HTML code and offering automated retrofits. It allows the developers to go to a page which they have discovered to be inaccessible with InSight and quickly make the necessary changes. Organizations have the option of customizing the tool to prioritize certain retrofits. For example, a company may first want to address Section 508 requirements, and then address the rest of the WCAG violations.

The Retrofitting Process

With the tools and plan, TypicalClient’s web developers begin the process of retrofitting the pages that do not meet the WCAG. Because the tools are designed with an intuitive interface, TypicalClient is able to assign the task to its junior technical staff. The developer in charge of a set of pages on product information uses InSight to create a report on that section of the web site. She sees that across the pages there are a number of violations categorized as Priority 1, 2, or 3 and sorted by type. As she looks at one page using InSight, she selects the Priority 1 violation box and sees three types listed: images lacking alt attributes, OBJECT elements without enclosed textual descriptions, and data tables without CAPTION elements. She also notices one Priority 2 violation: the use of deprecated (obsolete) HTML elements. Finally, there is a Priority 3 violation: a list of links without proper separation. There are multiple occurrences of each violation, each of which she is able to locate simply by selecting the specific occurrence from InSight’s "Violations" window. She selects the second occurrence of an image lacking an alt attribute, and InSight immediately jumps to the location in the HTML code and highlights the offending lines of code. This allows her to learn exactly what accessibility violations and offending code looks like as she diagnoses.

She then proceeds to use InFocus to fix these violations. InFocus scans the page and locates the accessibility violations she found with InSight. InFocus begins with the images lacking alt attributes. Each time InFocus locates an image without an alt attribute, it presents a window to the developer. This window notes the violation, in this case a missing alt attribute, displays the image, and prompts the developer for an alt tag and a longdesc tag. At the alt tag prompt, the developer types in, "TypicalClient’s logo." As she presses ‘enter’, InFocus places the textual description into the HTML code. She then enters a longdesc description, saying "TypicalClient’s logo is a series of interconnected circles, representing our connections to the community." InFocus proceeds to move to the next occurrence of this violation, asking for a description of a picture of a product. The developer continues through the page and fixes all the images lacking alt attributes and longdesc tags in this manner, entering a quick description of each image.

The next set of violations concerns OBJECT elements without enclosed textual descriptions. As with images lacking alt attributes, InFocus prompts the developer for a description of the OBJECT element. She enters descriptions for the three violations in less than a minute. InFocus proceeds to the violations concerning data tables without CAPTION elements. It prompts the developer for a CAPTION to be used by a table. Again, she is able to quickly retrofit these violations.

After retrofitting the Priority 1 elements, InFocus moves on to the use of deprecated elements. InFocus explains that these elements have been deprecated in HTML 4.0 and should be replaced with their Cascading Style Sheet equivalents. It offers to make this change automatically. The developer selects this option, and InFocus changes the code into an accessible format. Finally, InFocus checks for the Priority 3 violation, adjacent links without proper separation. As the developer comes across this problem, InFocus prompts her for a character to separate the links. She enters a ‘,’ clicks ‘OK’ and the code is once again properly updated. She then tests the page using InSight and discovers that it no longer has any accessibility violations. The end result is that in less than twenty minutes she has retrofitted the entire page.

Dynamic Pages

Another developer is responsible for a section of the site involving dynamic page generation. SSB recommends first retrofitting the templates, and then retrofitting the content in the database. Both of these tasks can be accomplished with InSight and InFocus. The resulting dynamically-generated pages will then be accessible.

A TypicalClient web developer is able to progress much faster than they would without tools because they do not need to worry about looking through the code for violations, since InSight locates them, or fixing them, since InFocus offers fast solutions. In a few weeks, TypicalClient is able to retrofit its entire web site and intranet.

Now that the existing intranet of TypicalClient is accessible, its management team is concerned about ensuring that future development is performed in an accessible manner. Through its experience with TypicalClient’s web development process during the creation of the Retrofitting Plan, SSB is able to help TypicalClient integrate the software tools into its ongoing development process. SSB recommends the use of the tools from the earliest stage of the lifecycle, starting with design, proceeding to development, and assuring accessibility during the QA process.

Integration into Development, Design, and QA

At the design stage, InSight allows developers to preview new design templates and test them for accessibility. InFocus allows designers to look at cosmetically similar pages that are accessible by automatically retrofitting the violations. During development both tools are used in a similar manner: as new pages are created, they are tested and retrofitted as needed. Finally, InSight is inserted into the QA process to ensure that no inaccessible pages are published. As TypicalClient’s quality engineers preview web pages for consistency, content, and other characteristics, they also use InSight to test for accessibility, modifying any pages that display violations.

As a result of its accessibility efforts, TypicalClient is seen as a model company in its field. It receives favorable media attention for being an early adopter of web site accessibility. TypicalClient attracts new users, both in the disabled community and among those favoring handheld Internet access. For a fraction of the cost of performing the jobs manually, SSB’s tools have enabled TypicalClient to retrofit its entire web site, greatly reducing its legal concerns and bringing numerous business benefits.

A Final Note

While there is no such thing as a "TypicalClient," SSB believes that software solutions greatly reduce the time and cost involved in retrofitting web sites and developing future sites in an accessible manner, and that automated software tools can become an integral part of the web site accessibility movement.

About SSB

Founded by technologists with disabilities, SSB Technologies is distinguished by the effectiveness of its automated software tools. SSB has established a deep understanding of alternative browsers and their use by people with disabilities, awareness of government accessibility regulations, and partnerships with leading technology-developing and standard-setting organizations.

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