First turn off the monitor. now try navigating the Internet. Sound impossible? Almost a million blind Americans face this same challenge every day when they try to access information on the World Wide Web. But much of the information remains just out of reach.
The government has long required brick-and-mortar establishments to make their businesses accessible to everyone (using such improvements as access ramps for wheelchairs and Braille markings on elevators). Three years ago the Department of Justice stated that similar accommodations should be made on the Internet, but until last year no significant court cases had been filed.
Then last Fall, the National Federation of the Blind sued America Online for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The NFB claimed AOL has not done enough to make its popular service accessible to those who cannot see. Regardless of how that case turns out, it is just a matter of time before virtual businesses of all shapes and sizes will be subject to ADA mandates.
Most business Web sites will need to make their sites accessible to the disabled blind users who cannot see the screen, deaf users who cannot hear sound clips, and those who cannot manipulate a mouse. And if you do it now, you open up a whole new universe of potential customers.But how can this be done?
A variety of adaptive technologies already have been developed to help almost anyone access computers. Screen readers translate text into either synthesized voice or Braille. Users can give voice or keyboard commands to enter information into the computer. And a "Morse code" system of dashes and dots even can be incorporated for sip-and-puff devices used by individuals who are paralyzed.
But these technologies still won't help unless a Web site is created in accordance with the basic principles of "universal design." This term describes specific strategies coding techniques, in the case of Web pages that give access to all users, regardless of their physical ability or method of access. Fortunately, a few simple tweaks can turn an existing site into a universally accessible one.
Following are a few guidelines suggested by organizations like the NFB to ensure maximum accessibility and usability to Web pages for everyone regardless of visual, auditory, or technological impairment. Often it's a matter of simply hiding descriptions behind images, or making hypertext links more specific than "click here."
What to do and what not to do
Don't use multi-column presentations or tables. Multi-column text or HTML tables on a Web page render a page difficult or impossible to read using most browsers for the blind. These browsers usually read an entire horizontal line of text at a time, without regard for column breaks. When one tries to read a table, the result is nonsense. While newer versions of these browsers can accurately read tables, they still pose problems for users with older versions.
Do provide an e-mail address for information submission by those who cannot use forms. Although browsers such as Lynx for Unix and Internet Explorer make it possible for blind users to access forms, for some especially those users on slow modems and processors filling out forms that have been sent to them via e-mail is easier than filling out a form through a browser.
Do provide an alternate means for selecting items contained within image maps. Image maps large images with multiple links embedded in them cannot be used with text-only browsers. The hypertext links contained within them are typically selected with the mouse and are not readily accessible through the keyboard. Nor can they be detected readily with screen access technology for the blind. So place items directly above or below the image map, and include instructions for the user.
Don't hyperlink a section of text unless it makes sense standing alone. If a person using a text-only device or speech recognition software gets no more information than "click here," it's not going to be very useful. A word or phrase that describes the purpose of the link is more helpful. Similarly, text-only browsers cannot detect linked images. And any adjacent links whether next to each other in a sentence or separated by only a carriage return may be confused by some screen access programs as a single piece of information. Images, bullets, or descriptive text inserted between links reduce the risk of providing blind users with bad information.
Do include a "No Frames" alternative. Text-based browsers cannot process HTML frames. And navigating through frames with screen access technology is time consuming. Create a "no frames" alternative to accommodate both blind users and text-only users.
Do describe all images and audio recordings. Textual descriptions or identification of images is essential if a blind person or any person who has turned images off is to understand the information on a Web page. Transcripts of recordings (teleconferences, news clips) should be included, as well.
Do supply alternate attributes to icon "bullets." When graphical icons are used as bullets, supplying an alternate attribute like an asterisk as opposed to descriptive text like "Bulleted item" will allow all users to understand the information without cluttering the screen with excessive verbiage. This will help "text only" users, as well as those using speech-based screen reading systems.
Do provide text-based equivalents to graphically-based file formats and for Java applets. As a rule, standard access tools for the blind and text-only browsers do not work with graphical viewers. Make sure to provide HTML or plain text files containing equivalent information. Similarly, Java applets are difficult for anyone with graphics turned off, including the blind. If an applet is important to an understanding of the information you want to convey, consider using an informational tag.
Put it to the test
Want to know if your site is accessible to all that may visit? Turn off both images and sound, and log onto your company's site. Does the information make sense? Or are you bombarded with a string of "image, image link, link" messages that are unintelligible? You can also see how you rate on an online accessibility service like "Bobby" [see sidebar].
If changes need to be made to make your site accessible, do it now while it's still on your terms. If the court rules in favor of the NFB, it's only a matter of time before the decision is made for you.