2001 Conference Proceedings

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DESIGNING FOR WEB ACCESSIBILITY

Sandra S. Andrews
Arizona State University
sandra@asu.edu 

Ivana Batarelo
Arizona State University
iva@asu.edu 

Samuel DiGangi, Phd

Angel Jannasch-Pennell, Phd

Introduction

Web instruction is not the only aspect of academic life that is growing. The ranks of online journals are expanding rapidly, as print journals add archives to the web. This paper discusses the importance to the academic community of making all web resources, including web journals, accessible to all.

The researchers will present a pragmatic approach to the problem. A handout will be available with specific directions for online journals and for web courses. There will also be a discussion of icons that can be placed on websites to show accessibility, including an new icon specifically designed for the field of education.

A look at the future will explain the use of XML / XSLT files that can transform both presentation and content to produce accessible pages. This protocol, being developed for wireless technologies such as cell phones and organizers, can also address the needs of the disabled if properly applied.

Theoretical Framework

The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment." Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act says that each Federal agency shall comply with guidelines that ensure accessibility of electronic and information technology, and develop and establish procedures for electronic equipment designed to insure that people with disabilities may use electronic equipment with or without special peripherals. This Section amended in 1995 requires equal access to information systems for people with disabilities.

Good web-page accessibility requires that full web content be even available when one or more senses are not being used. While this applies to all people with physical disabilities, it can also apply to those who are not permanently disabled. Testing a site for a accessibility should be a part of a regular web design process.

There is currently no standardized test or criteria that recognizes web sites as accessible, although the World Wide Web Consortium at http://w3c.org lists a complex set of guidelines and simpler set of guidelines to the guidelines. The closest thing to standard accessibility test is the automated Bobby service. Bobby grew out of CAST's (Center for Applied Special Technology) mission to expand opportunities for people with disabilities through the innovative uses of computer technology. Those sites that pass the Bobby validator at http://cast.org can display the Bobby icon. The Web Access Symbol developed by WGBH in Boston and available at http://www.wgbh.org may be used by webmasters to denote that their site contains accessibility features to accommodate the needs of disabled users. Yet, there is no guarantee that a site using either symbol will be completely accessible.

The academic community has been inordinately slow to consider the needs of the disabled. Dr. Norman Coombs of the Rochester Institute for Technology, whom many know as the founder of EASI, located at http://www.rit.edu/~easi/, was an early advocate in the field of education. EASI's mission is to serve as a resource to the education community by providing information and guidance in the area of access-to-information technologies by individuals with disabilities. EASI guidelines may help Web designers' utilize design principles that provide access to the pages for people with disabilities.

In a publication from 1997 (Cunningham & Coombs, 1997) Coombs lists four web access problem areas for individuals with disabilities: 1) The computer display is often richer and more complicated; it can be disturbing for persons with visual processing disorders; 2) More graphically oriented Web browsers, like many other graphics-based software, may require the use of the mouse to navigate the Web. Some people with motor impairments may find this impossible; 3) The use of sound convey content may leave hard-of -hearing and deaf people with no way to access information; 4) The use of pictures to convey information may create barriers for vision-impaired individuals. Nielsen (2000) gives an overview of the main issues in accessible web design, emphasizing differences in design in regards to visual disabilities, auditory disabilities, speech disabilities, motor disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. While Coombs and Nielsen became widely known in academic circles, their ideas were often ignored.

Discussion: Current and Future Solutions

Once again it is the place of educators to drive the technology in the directions we need it to go; let us not ignore the chance. We have ignored, to a great extent, the problems of the disabled. Since the web was originally designed for free information sharing regardless of platform or device (Berners-Lee, 1999) it has never been difficult to make simple pages accessible to all. Nevertheless, the software designers for both web course creation software and the most common HTML editors did not built in accessibility as an option.

Some educators have done this on their own with their web pages. However, online resources for ensuring such access may be difficult to decipher for all but the most technically minded of us, while technical people that come to our aid may not understand the educational priorities.

Most pages created without software can be easily transformed, and we have developed a set of simple guidelines for doing so, along with an icon that can be used by anyone in education who follows those guidelines. Our thinking is that such an icon can help spread the importance of accessibility.

The standards and technical protocols of the web have not stopped evolving. XML is a language being created to replace HTML in special cases; XML will allow users to develop their own tags. With the addition of the new XSLT protocol, we will be able to develop one content file that can then be transformed (the "T" in XSLT) for various users. This protocol is being developed for the use of people using kiosks and cell phones, but the concept will be useful to the disabled. For instance, a single content file can be developed for a journal article. A set of directions for transformation can then be written. If the user has low vision, the user need only click on the proper link, and the content file will be transformed on the fly. The directions in this case might say to use 24-point font size, and to display only the abstract, giving the low-vision user the option of then requesting the entire paper.

References

Berners-Lee, T., Fischetti, M., & Dertouzos, M. (1999). Weaving the Web : The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco.

Center for Applied Special Technology. (2000). Welcome to Bobby 3.2. Retrieved July 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cast.org/bobby/ 

Cunningham, C., & Coombs, N. (1997). Information Access and adaptive Technology. Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education.

Department of Justice. (2000). Section 508 Home Page. Retrieved July 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/508home.html/

Designing Accessible Web Sites: Creating sites that are accessible to people with disabilities. (1999). Retrieved July 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:


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