2003 Conference Proceedings

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Michael Cooper
Accessibility Product Manager
Watchfire Corporation
1 Hines Rd, Kanata, ON, K2K 3C7, Canada
Email: michaelc@watchfire.com 
Website: http://www.watchfire.com 


A decade after the emergence of the World Wide Web, accessibility remains an important consideration for the design of Web sites. Just as poorly designed buildings keep some from gaining entry, poorly designed websites create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities. Given that the Internet is now such a pervasive part of everyday life, any difficulty in using it is a severe disadvantage. Fortunately, awareness of this issue is now widespread, as a result of the efforts of many advocacy organizations and the passage of new legislation. Most large corporate, government, and educational Web sites have accessibility requirements and look for ways to facilitate their work.

Automated accessibility evaluation is an extremely important part of the process of ensuring that Web sites are accessible. Bobby, created by CAST in 1996, pioneered this concept and remains the best-known accessibility evaluation tool. In July 2002, Watchfire, a provider of website management software and services, acquired the Bobby software from CAST. Bobby enhances Watchfire's existing accessibility service and itself gains Watchfire's robust site analysis technology.

Web accessibility guidelines and legislation

To provide guidance to Web developers on making sites accessible to people with disabilities, guidelines have been created to describe ways to avoid these problems. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is an international set of guidelines produced by the W3C, the industry consortium that defines most of the standards in use on the Web. Many organizations have adopted these guidelines as internal standards, and the majority of national Web accessibility laws reference them. The guidelines are divided into three levels of priority, allowing Web designers to balance accessibility gains with implementation effort. Priority 1 guidelines represent a base level of accessibility, but it is recommended that they meet priority 1 and 2 guidelines to meet the needs of the majority of people with disabilities. Priority 3 guidelines describe ways to provide additional support.

Many governments have passed legislation requiring certain Web sites in their jurisdictions to be accessible. This legislation includes:

That these laws exist in so many countries shows that accessibility is a major emerging issue world-wide. Businesses and governments now seek to comply with accessibility guidelines, both to follow the law in their countries and as a result of new awareness of the social and business benefits of doing so. Yet Web accessibility is a new topic and understanding the guidelines can be difficult. And ensuring that large sites are accessible is a huge task to undertake. Automated tools support understanding and facilitate accessibility problem identification and repair.

The Role of Automated Technology

To help Government agencies and companies comply with accessibility legislation, Watchfire's accessibility products and services were created to identify barriers to accessibility and encourage compliance with existing guidelines. The verification capabilities of Bobby assist government agencies and companies to achieve accessible websites that meet the standards for Section 508 and the W3C's WCAG. Bobby offers prioritized suggestions and allows developers to test web pages and generate summary reports highlighting critical accessibility issues before posting content to live servers.

The use of automated evaluation significantly improves the speed and accuracy of finding and repairing problems, especially on large sites. Automated tools analyze and assess an existing website by scanning through each every page and monitor the site's accessibility on an ongoing basis. Obscure elements such as invisible images, issues not apparent from a visual survey of the site such as improper use of markup used by assistive technologies, and problems repeated across many pages or templates are quickly found by tools like Bobby. Such tools can help determine the severity of each problem based on a rating of each problem type and/or by the frequency of occurrence within a page or site. It is also possible to provide limited automated repair support, depending on the technology used by the site.

To be fully successful, automated evaluation is an important part of a process to ensure a Web site is accessible. This involves procedures to ensure that evaluation is conducted at the appropriate points in the Web site development and maintenance cycle, that manual aspects of the evaluation process are performed efficiently and accurately (supported by the tool when feasible), that accessibility problems found are prioritized and scheduled for repair, and that during site maintenance new problems are not created.

Continued development of Bobby

Watchfire has further developed and enhanced Bobby to improve its support for the entire accessibility cycle. In order to meet the reporting and scalability needs of larger customers, Watchfire has integrated the comprehensive accessibility evaluation functionality of Bobby into its website quality testing tool, WebQA(tm), suitable for medium-sized organizations, and into its enterprise Website Management platform, Watchfire(r) WebXM(tm). These tools provide multiple levels of support for different stages of the evaluation process. In addition, Watchfire continues to support both the low-priced client version of Bobby and free on-line service, serving the international effort to increase accessibility by providing basic automated evaluation to the widest possible audience. Altogether these versions of Bobby provide automated accessibility evaluation services suitable for the entire range of consumers.

Achieving the goal of universal accessibility is admittedly a daunting task. This presentation provides more information about:

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