Charmane K. Corcoran
http://www.msu.edu/~corcora1/
http://www.msu.edu/access/webaccess/
corcora1@msu.edu

Shawn D. Corcoran
http://www.vrcbvi.org/
corks@worldnet.att.net

About Campus, March - April 2002/Vol 7, No.1

About Campus
March-April 2002/Vol 7, No. 1

THE ELECTRONIC


CAMPUS


Accessible Web Sites:
Why They're Important and Where to Begin


As Internet use becomes intergal to the life of our institutions, we need to
be aware of what it takes to make Web sites accessible to each and every user.


Have you ever tried to log on to the Internet from home and noticed that it took forever for your chosen Web site to appear? This waiting time is all the more disappointing if, once you finally get to the site, you find that it isn't very user-friendly. For example, maybe it requires you to download something (or copy a file to your computer) a file before you can even view or use the page. If you're like most Internet users, you will probably give up at this point. Furthermore, studies have shown that if a given site's pages take more than thirty seconds to download, you're not likely to return to that site very often.

The end result of such difficulties is that this site is, in effect, inaccessible to you. But what if the site gives you the choice to either download images or view a text-only page? In that case, the site's developer is clearly thinking about accessibility issues. The question of accessibility is most often considered in the context of helping people with disabilities. But while Internet accessibility features are necessary for those with disabilities, they also enhance usability for many of our other constituencies.

Let's take a look at a design element we encounter in everyday life that can teach us about accessible Web sites. Graded sidewalks and curbs were introduced to assist wheelchair access, but soon after their appearance, several additional benefits of wheelchair accessible curbs became apparent. Street travel became easier not just for those in wheelchairs but also for those pushing infants in strollers, senior citizens with low mobility, and vendors delivering goods from trucks to their clients. Today, graded curbs are considered a necessary element of good curb design. The bottom line is that accessibility makes good business sense.

An accessible Web site is one from which any user can easily obtain the available information. And accessibility is fast coming to be considered an essential component of good Web design. Accessibility will mean different things to different people, depending on their needs. To a faculty member connecting to the institution's site while traveling, accessibility means, first and foremost, ease and speed of connection. To an international student investigating an admissions page, accessibility may mean not encountering technical problems because of the age of her computer's hardware (storage and display devices), software (computer instructions or data), or browser (a software application used to locate and display Web pages). To a staff member with low vision, accessibility means the ability to use site features that he may not be able to see. To the parent with cognitive disabilities, accessibility it may mean having textual elements represented visually.

Today, anyone who can use a word processing program is a potential Web-site developer. This includes students who do presentations for class, faculty who create instructional materials to be distributed on the Web, staff involved in original document creation as well as Web design, and administrators who oversee these types of activities. That means you need to be aware of Web accessibility issues. As you develop your own Web site (or when you have to rely on others to construct your Web pages), it is critical to know enough about Web development to discern the best balance between accessibility and glitz.

Ultimately, all of us can advocate for and provide accessible Web pages. This article is designed to raise awareness of accessibility concerns as well as equip you to make choices in Web design that will assist all Web users. While it is hard to remove every stumbling block for every user, we can use the following principles to increase access for a broader audience.

First, let's consider two fundamental factors influencing accessibility: software and design. The software an Internet user has supplies a certain amount of accessibility. For example, for those who prefer to browse in text-only mode, some browsers allow users to turn off images and features that support nontext components. And those who have vision or other disabilities can use screen readers, such as Jaws or WindownEyes, which translate the visual output on the screen into voice or Braille output. Screen readers can dramatically ease Web-site navigation and increase the amount of readable Web content.

Recently, new accessibility software features have been added to commonly used development and Web-based programs. Acrobat Reader now has a form feature that simplifies the process of filling out forms online. Macromedia Dreamweaver includes a validator, a tool that checks the accessibility of a site. Other vendors, such as Apple and Microsoft, are continuing efforts to make their products easy to use. But Web developers need to create sites that allow users to take full advantage of these software capabilities.

An accessible design will probably have smaller Web files and fewer graphics than one created without accessibility issues in mind. Therefore, the download time for this site's pages will decrease, which benefits everybody. Another byproduct of accessible design is ease of use with a personal data assistant (a handheld device with a small screen that allows input from various sources) and cell phones with Internet access.
A good place to start learning about designing for accessibility is the World Wide Web Consortium's comprehensive set of accessibility guidelines for Web designers. As a part of its dedication to improving Web technology, the Consortium has made its guidelines and checklists available online, at http://www.w3.org/WAI/, with a more succinct list at http://www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/#QuickTips. Here is a brief explanation of the points in the list.

Images People with vision disabilities may need to have the visual components of a site described and explained for them. In order for the screen reader, described earlier, to easily interpret and translate a site's visual components, it needs help from the Web designer. Use HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language, the coding system used to create Web pages) to describe each visual and its function for interpretation by a screen reader. If an image is there purely for design, simply describe the image in your coding. If the image conveys information, provide the same information textually.

Multimedia Captioning or complete transcripts make audio content accessible to people with hearing disabilities. Descriptions make video content accessible to people with vision disabilities.

Hypertext links Many screen readers can follow links, but if the text accompanying each link says simply "Click here," users with vision disabilities will have no indication of what is being linked to. Instead, designers can use words that describe the destination users will reach after clicking on the link. The text that accompanies links should be comprehensible on its own.

Page organization Creating a page layout that is accessible to screen readers can be difficult. Generally, layout should be structurally consistent, with use of heads and lists. You may want to use cascading style sheets (CSS), files that define how the HTML documents will display elements such as background color, links, fonts, and heading sizes and styles. However, recent versions of CSS code may not be compatible with some browsers. In this case, the screen readers will read the page but the content may be highly distorted for visual users. We still recommend using CSS, but with an older coding version. Checking your Web page on several operating systems and browsers is the ultimate way to determine if your code will work for both screen readers and visual users. (See the section "Final Checks for Accessibility.")

Graphs and Charts A screen reader most likely will not be able to read a chart or graph. Add a synopsis of the information in plain text.

Animation Many users, disabled or otherwise, cannot access animation because of the limitations of their Web browser or Internet connection. Any information you convey by animation should also be available in plain text.

Frames Frames, dividers used to organize Web content, may not be accessible to people using low- end technology and old browsers. Also, screen readers may only recognize the first frame and not acknowledge that any other frame exists on the page. If you choose to use frames, code them using content-rich descriptions rather than "frame 1," "frame 2," and so on. Also, provide a link to a non-frame version of the page content for those who are not able to effectively read a page constructed using frames.

Tables Summarize tables, particularly heavy with data, because screen readers read standard tables one line at a time across the columns.

Check your work As noted earlier, validators are programs that check for accessibility and HTML coding accuracy and consistency. Good coding speeds download time for sighted users and efficiency for screen-reader users. Some validators are better than others. Trying out a number of validation services on the same Web page is a good way to test which validator will be most usable and understandable for you. In our opinion, one of the most understandable validators is Doctor HTML (http://www2.imagiware.com/RxHTML/). Which diagnoses several potential problem areas but does not specifically indicate accessibility. To take validation a step further by checking for accessibility, you can use

Bobby (http://www.cast.org/bobby/)
HTML Validation Service (http://validator.w3.org/)
Cascading Style Sheets (http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/)
CSS Validation Service (http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/)


You can also use the W3C's tools, checklist, and guidelines at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/.

Not mentioned on the W3C list but very important is the discriminating use of contrasting color to distinguish text from background. Also, don't use color as the only way to communicate with users. Another big help is the provision of a text-only version of each page. For another quick reference, see the American College Professional Association's "Accessible Web Page Principles" at http://www.acpa.nche.edu/comms/disab/access.html.

Even if the site passes validation tests, it may not be accessible because of design flaws or browser issues. Your viewers may not be seeing your page exactly as you do even if they are not using assistive technology , software or hardware designed to assist people with disabilities. So stop, look, and listen before you finalize your site.

It is important to take a break and walk away from your Web site. When you come back, try to see it through the eyes of your clients, or have someone who is unfamiliar with your content view the site. The evaluation of someone with a fresh perspective can improve the quality of your final product.

Then take a look. Review your Web page on different operating systems to see how the page looks and acts before putting it up online. For example, review your site from a Macintosh, an IBM compatible, and a Unix computer to see how it appears differently from each. Also, browsers sometimes treat coding elements, such as fonts, differently on different operating systems. Viewing a page across browsers and operating systems may reveal some otherwise hidden problems. You'll probably want your site to perform in basically the same way across operating systems and browsers.

Finally listen. The final accessibility test is to open a Web page using one or two screen readers, such as Jaws or WindowEyes (see www.freedomscientific.com and www.gwmicro.com, respectively, for more information on these two software packages.) Each renders Web pages differently, much like how a site differs depending on the browser and operating system used to view it. It is quite revealing to walk through your site using a screen reader so you can see and hear what your clients will experience when they visit your site.


It is to our benefit to avoid getting caught up in the myopic grip of the "I am required to provide accessible Web sites" syndrome. Instead, we should think in terms of the practical benefit of meeting the needs of the broadest possible spectrum of potential clients. Providing accessible Web materials means reaching a broad spectrum of individuals not only those with disabilities but also those who do not have the most recent hardware and software and visitors who are logging in remotely by the way of a dial-up modem. To achieve this worthwhile ideal, we need to be aware of accessibility issues throughout the process of design, implementation, and evaluation of new technology. We also need to take a fresh look at our clients and their needs. This attention to detail is a significant indication of how well we are serving faculty, staff, students, and visitors. Accessibility is a value-added component to your Web pages and Internet services. Be aware of the scope of needs and the tools available. Greater accessibility is attainable and well worth the effort.

__________

Charmane K. Corcoran is the information and project principal in the Client Advocacy Office at Michigan State University and the first webmaster for the ACPA Standing Committee on Disability. She can be reached at corcora1@msu.edu.

Shawn D. Corcoran is a computer instructor at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired. Previously, he was a software trainer for The Computer Solution Company.

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