Each month, an increasing number of companies unveil new Web
sites and begin to rely more on the Internet to conduct business.
Web developers, hired at premium prices, create visually brilliant sites
with snazzy graphics, and businesses wait for customers to take the bait.
But even the well-intentioned developers rarely consider the impact that
these hip graphics will have on the accessibility of the site for the
visually impaired, especially because, more often than not, vital
text-based descriptions of the images, which can be sounded out by
screen-reader technologies, are not included.
Giving the disabled full access to the Internet, in particular the World
Wide Web, is a challenge several industry groups are confronting.
Earlier this month, the World Wide Web Consortium, based in
Cambridge, Mass., announced the Web Accessibility Initiative to drive
the creation of technologies that make it easier for people with
disabilities to use the Web, and to increase awareness about access
issues among Web developers.
The Consortium, directed by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the
World Wide Web, is developing descriptive video and captioning
enhancements to HTML and XML, and trying to find ways to support
speech output. The United States Department of Education and the
National Science Foundation have pledged $800,000 to work toward this
goal. Several private corporations, including International
Business Machines and Microsoft are also sponsoring the initiative.
"Given the explosive growth in the use of the World Wide Web for
publishing, electronic commerce, lifelong learning and the delivery of
government services, it is vital that the Web be accessible to everyone,"
President Clinton wrote in a letter to the World Wide Web Consortium.
The letter continues: "The Web Accessibility Initiative will develop the
tools, technology, and guidelines to make it possible to display
information in ways that are available to all users."
According to the National Economic Council at the White House, there
are approximately 49 million people in the United States with varying
disabilities. This figure does not include the 34 million people who will
be over 65-years-old by the year 2000 and who will begin to find that
their eyes take a little longer to focus or that their hands aren't as
nimble across the keyboards as they once were.
These people, like everyone else, increasingly need access not only to
the Internet but also to the private networks known as intranets that are
widely used by companies to disseminate work-related information to
"Inaccessibility goes beyond just not being able to surf the Web for fun,"
said Linda Hazzan, the vice president of marketing at SoftQuad, a
Toronto company that produces accessibility aids as well as publishing
tools for corporate intranets and the Internet. "It jeopardizes
people's jobs when they are not able to operate on the intranet on an
equal basis as their colleagues."
The legal ramification for either losing one's job or not being promoted
because of access problems are serious. The Americans with Disability
Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act legislate that employers
could be held liable for not accommodating or providing accessibility to
employees with disabilities.
"The liability factor for businesses to ensure accessibility is rising at
lightning-like speed," said Mike Paciello, executive director of the Yuri
Rubinsky Insight Foundation, a non-profit organization in Nashua,
N.H., founded to pursue equal Web access for the disabled. "If ever
there was an impetus to encourage and ensure accessibility by the
industry, now is the time."
Luckily, the disabled will not need any major innovations to surf the
Web, especially since many adaptive technologies already exist.
It's mostly a matter of getting programmers to integrate these aids
into their applications. SoftQuad is releasing an update of
its HoTMetaL PRO, an HTML authoring tool, that includes an
auto-prompting mechanism that helps Web developers to make sure
a Web document they are creating is accessible.
"The prompting technology actually prompts authors while they are
creating content and also shows them how to make their content more
accessible," Hazzan said. "Imagine a spell checker: well this is an
adaptability checker." HoTMetaL PRO will also include an on-screen
keyboard to assist Web authors who have physical disabilities.
Microsoft is also deeply involved in creating tools to make applications
adaptable for disabled.
"Microsoft has made the technology available," said Charles Opperman,
program manager of accessibility and disabilities at Microsoft, referring
to Internet Explorer 3.0's accessibility aids and the MS Active
Accessibility, a developer's programming tool. "Now it's an cultural
issue to get people aware of the issues of providing textual descriptions
and to implement sites that are accessible to the visually impaired."
Internet Explorer 3.0 aids include a feature called High Contrast Mode,
which makes a screen more visible by automatically rendering an
HTML page in a high contrast color selected by the user. It also allows
people to navigate the Web using keyboards instead of a mouse
because the adaptive technologies help the user determine where the
hypertext links are on the page. MS Active Accessibility is a tool that
software developers can use to make their programs accessible.
Although there are development tools that help make HTML-based
Web sites more accessible, Java, the programming language developed
by Sun Microsytems, is rapidly becoming ubiquitous and is posing a
host of new accessibility problems for the disabled.
"We are investigating Java's accessibility right now," said Phill Jenkins, a
program manager for Special Needs Architecture and Technical
Planning at IBM. "Our goal is to have a screen-reader that supports
Java applications and Java operating systems."
But currently, no adaptive tools exist to make Java accessible even as it
spreads and appears on increasingly more Web sites.
"As a technologist, it is very depressing to think that advances in
technology are taking away jobs from people who have a disability,"
said Jim Miller, the World Wide Web Consortium's technology and
society domain leader, not specifically referring to Java. "If
technology were used well, it should have the opposite consequences."
Paciello added: "Sun Microsystems has recently announced their Java
Accessibility team, which shows that the very fiber of Web
programming and applications will include the needs of people with
History has also shown that any gains for the disabled community often
result in benefits for the mainstream.
"Screen readers can help people who are able bodied but are
temporarily not able to use their eyes because their eyes are busy doing
some other task," said David Singer, program manager for Advanced
Internet Technology at IBM. "It can help make people more efficient."