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Analysis: Web sites are locking out the disabled
(IDG) -- Every morning Marlaina Lieberg, who's been blind from birth, reads her local paper, the Seattle Times, on the Web, with her guide dog, Madeline, at her feet. Lieberg also taps into Web sites to research corporations she'll pitch her consulting company's services to and trades e-mail with clients. In her spare moments, she trades stocks online and shops for groceries. Last year she bought all her gifts on the Web.
Lieberg navigates cyberspace with a screen reader, a software utility that reads Web pages out loud, chattering like a robot as it recites links and text. Surfing the Web without seeing is time-consuming; Lieberg must orient herself on pages by listening carefully to words rather than scanning pictures and must navigate using her keyboard instead of a mouse.
Even so, Lieberg exults over the freedom that the Web has given her. "These shopping services are so important for people who are unable to drive, and for those of us who are unable to peruse the aisles," she says. "It is such a joy. I can even read package directions. I've never done this sort of thing before."
Lieberg can't navigate every Web site easily with her screen reader, though. The majority of Web pages are poorly designed for anyone who's not surfing with a standard copy of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator: Buttons can be hard to identify, Java applets can be impenetrable, and forms tend to be indecipherable if they're not coded for a screen reader.
Making Web sites accessible to all potential customers seems like common sense. One in five Americans has some disability; as the country ages, that percentage is expected to increase. A Web site that's navigable by an assistive technology such as a screen reader is also accessible by phones and palmtops, not to mention by old, slow computers. In addition, suggests Mike Piper of PiperStudiosInc, designers of an accessible site for Easter Seals, every site wants to stand out, and the goodwill generated by maintaining an accessible online presence can be a powerful way to do that.
Accessibility also makes sense legally: The Justice Department has ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to the Web, not just to places that can be accessed physically. A retailer whose Web site doesn't meet ADA standards can be sued under the act, just as a brick-and-mortar store can.
But as the online world grows more graphical, it becomes less accessible to disabled users. For years Rose Combs, a blind medical transcriptionist in Scottsdale, Arizona, used the text-based GEnie service, which was easy to traverse with a screen reader. When GEnie shut its doors, Combs found that getting Web tasks accomplished could be a struggle. "I can't count the times I have had to call my husband to help me navigate a site," she says.
Web sites also hamper those with nonvisual disabilities. Jamie Berke, who is deaf, says she has "waged losing battles" trying to convince network-TV Web sites to provide closed captions for news Webcasts. Even President Clinton's recent Webcast about government and the Internet wasn't captioned, notes Berke, who runs a site called the Closed Captioning Web (link below).
"It's hit-or-miss whether a site will be accessible," says Joseph Lazzaro, director of the adaptive technology program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and author of Adapting PCs for Disabilities (Addison-Wesley, 1995). "If you're cut off from information, you're not going to go to school, you're not going to get a job. You're going to be left out of a lot that society has to offer."
Even being a good citizen may pose a challenge. Recently, Arizona became the first state to let its citizens vote online. But Rose Combs couldn't cast her cyberballot without assistance.
A problem ignored
In recent years, the physical world has adapted to the needs of the disabled: wheelchair ramps, Braille markings, closed captioning. But of more than 30 major shopping, search, auction, news, and financial Web sites that PC World contacted, only a handful admitted any interest in -- much less any action taken toward -- tailoring the sites for accessibility. A spokesperson for one electronics retailer that asked not to be named said, "That's not a market we've thought about pursuing." Many Web retailers declined to be interviewed for this article. Others did not return repeated calls.
Some sites expressed a vague interest in keeping all users happy; others were dismissive. Anna Lonergan, a spokesperson for The Gap, told us the company has no plans to make its site accessible. "We're aware of the technologies but have no plans to implement them," she said. Asked why not, she replied, "That touches in the realm of strategy, and we don't discuss strategy."
A spokesperson at one of the country's largest computer retailers said that the company's Web designers had not even considered the issue until PC World brought it to their attention. That retailer isn't alone: Until this article, this magazine hadn't examined the accessibility of its own site, PCWorld.com. Since then, we've made plans for modest immediate moves to improve access, such as using larger type and clearer directory descriptions, as well as for more-substantial long-term efforts.
Why don't more firms keep accessibility in mind? Mike Paciello, a Web accessibility consultant and technical director for WebAble, a resource for accessible Web design, says, "They don't see the market. The moment you tell a company how important it is to their business to make their Web site accessible, they come back with statistics that the market isn't big enough for them to spend the money."
Access is not so hard
But developing an accessible site is pricey only if you're redesigning a large site from the ground up, contends Kynn Bartlett, director of the HTML Writers Guild's Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education Center and a Web site accessibility consultant. "We're not talking about doubling the cost of your site; we're talking about adding 1 or 2 percent to its cost and increasing your audience by 20 percent," he says.
Other Webmasters fear that making a site accessible means replacing attractive graphics with an austere look and a big typeface. Bartlett says that's a myth. "I tell people, don't take down Java, don't get rid of that animation -- just add an alternative."
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines released by the World Wide Web Consortium call for simple changes, such as describing graphics and audio using text and providing alternatives to applets and scripts. Such tweaks result in a site that's easily navigable by many assistive tools. They also make a site friendly to those with a wide variety of disabilities, including visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor impairments.
Signs of progress
For now, many sites remain oblivious to the problem. But the news isn't all bad. Judy Brewer, director of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative, says that a number of sites are beginning to consider it. "I think that in probably half of those companies [that PC World contacted], people are already working on Web accessibility, but word hasn't spread through the organization."
Some companies have made progress. Microsoft, for instance, is gradually improving its sites. "The [W3C] guidelines are not rocket science, but they're not that easy to figure out how to apply in some cases," says Dick Brown, program manager for Web accessibility at Microsoft.
IBM is also revising its Web site as part of a companywide initiative to make all its products accessible. Kim Stephens, Webmaster at IBM's accessibility center, says that the biggest challenge has been educating employees on the importance of Web accessibility. "We've found that one of the most effective motivators is to let someone hear how their Web page sounds [when recited by a screen reader]. When they hear how broken it sounds, [it inspires] them to change it."
In many cases, smaller sites can move more quickly than big ones. Consider Coffee Anyone?, a mom-and-pop site operated by Norman and Rosemary Belssner. Until they started corresponding with customers, the Belssners were unaware that many were blind. They hadn't known about site accessibility but were surprised at how easy it was to implement.
"The problems [customers] were having were subtle," explains Norman Belssner. "We didn't have some shopping cart buttons labeled, for example." The changes he made were simple and took minutes. "Creating accessibility in a brick-and-mortar environment is far more challenging than adding accessibility to your Web site," concludes Belssner, who says revamping the site has helped his company's bottom line.
Uncle Sam steps in
Not every company sees accessibility as a smart business decision, but those that do not could find themselves in trouble with the law. Last year, the National Federation of the Blind filed suit against America Online, arguing that because AOL's software does not work with screen readers, the service violates the ADA. Under Title III of the act, passed in 1990, all "public accommodations" must provide reasonable access to persons with disabilities. In 1996, the Department of Justice ruled that Web sites are public accommodations and must therefore offer access to the disabled. (A separate law mandates that federal sites created after August 7, 2000, be accessible.)
"Traditionally, what has been covered by the ADA is physical structures," says Curtis Chong, director of technology for the NFB. "We in the National Federation of the Blind believe that although we don't have many problems accessing buildings, the world is moving in the direction that everything one does revolves around electronic services and the Internet. If the blind can't use that information, we will not be able to compete. We will be relegated to the backwaters of the electronic information highway."
Chong says that before filing suit, the organization asked AOL to modify its software, but the company "pretty much ignored us." Nicholas Graham of AOL reports that the company is talking with the NFB. He says AOL will support screen readers in future versions of its software, although he can't say when.
Editor's note: As this story went to press, the NFB dropped its lawsuit against AOL, after the company agreed to make its Internet browsing software and content compatible with screen-reading programs.
The NFB is considering suits against other ISPs and Web sites. "The AOL suit has drawn people's attention to the fact that this is a serious issue," says Cynthia Waddell, ADA coordinator for the city of San Jose, California. The ADA mandates both that sites be accessible to the disabled and that workers can request that their own company's site be redesigned so they can perform their jobs, she says.
Waddell says many businesses fear the expense that could accompany redesigning their sites to comply with the ADA, but accessible design isn't necessarily costly. "When the ADA was passed in 1990, there was concern that businesses would go bankrupt because they would have to make their buildings accessible," she explains. "Now we're hearing the same argument."
Steve Jacobson, vice president of the computer science division for the National Federation of the Blind, says such concerns are mostly groundless. "Some of [this is] fear mongering.... We're not looking at a massive rewrite of Web pages but at working with Web designers to make pages accessible."
Earlier this year, the NFB and the Connecticut attorney general's office reached an agreement with four companies that provide online tax filing services. The Internal Revenue Service listed HDVest, Intuit, H & R Block, and Gilman & Ciocia on its site as partners for e-filing, but users with screen readers couldn't file returns on those sites. The firms agreed to make their sites accessible by the 2000 tax season.
Similarly, the California Council of the Blind has been working with large financial institutions to ensure that their sites are accessible. The first agreement was reached in March with Bank of America. "I think it's really important to get people in the institutions to understand why technology should be accessible," says Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer in Berkeley, California, who represents the council. "We approached the banks and said, 'You have a problem here.' They've been totally on board."
Smarter technology ahead?
One reason the Internet isn't more hospitable to the disabled is that few Web authoring tools take accessibility into consideration. But new W3C Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines should improve the situation. "Hopefully, in the future any tool you pull off the shelf is going to help you to automatically create accessible Web pages," says the W3C's Brewer.
Some Web technology companies are also working on fixes. For instance, when a screen reader encounters Java on a Web site, the result can sound like a Martian poem. Sun Microsystems has created the Java Accessibility API, which lets screen readers and voice recognition devices make Java applets and applications talk as well as listen. However, this solution works only if developers build Java apps that take advantage of the new API and users have an up-to-date screen reader and browser.
Another new tool is the Web-captioning editor Media Access Generator from public TV station WGBH and its National Center for Accessible Media in Boston. "One reason there are hardly any captions on the Web is because they're a big pain in the neck to create," says Geoff Freed, project manager for the Web Access Project at NCAM. With MAGpie, as the editor is called, one can write video captions in multiple formats simply. "This knocks down one excuse for not providing captions," he says.
Disabled users may also benefit as companies see profit in providing Web access to phones, wireless PDAs, and other devices. "When we were writing the accessibility guidelines, someone told us we should really call them Guidelines for Making Your Web Site Work With Mobile Technologies," says Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the University of Wisconsin's Trace Research Center and an editor of the W3C accessibility guidelines. "If you want to access the Web with a Palm Pilot, you want text large, and that's how people with low vision want to view the page. If you want to access the Internet via phone, you're accessing it auditorily, and that's how someone with a speech reader accesses it."
Earl Johnson, an accessibility architect at Sun, feels that wireless devices will start to transform the Web in as little as two to three years, making it more accessible to people with and without disabilities in the process. "If you start introducing in your site the ability to display information on different devices, that's where accessibility starts to benefit every user," he says.
Access versus isolation
Despite remaining roadblocks, the Web is already helping the disabled. "Look at the wealth of information you have at your fingertips," marvels Kelly Ford, an access technology coordinator at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. Ford has been blind since birth. "Admittedly some of it is hard to get at, but 20 years ago I couldn't flip through the L.A. Times and read book reviews, let alone buy the books online."
Looking ahead, users and activists voice cautious optimism. Most agree that there will be more lawsuits, and more rankling between consumers and Webmasters. "I see [the Web] becoming accessible, but slowly," says the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind's Lazzaro. "It's not going to happen overnight."
And the Web won't truly be open to all until "all providers of information on the Net... put effort into making that information readily accessible to everyone, regardless of physical barriers," says Vint Cerf, an Internet founding father and chairman of the Internet Societal Task Force.
"If you are deaf, you need captions for spoken elements. If you are blind, you need voiced descriptions of Web contents and spoken renderings of e-mail. The range of physical disabilities is very large, and we need many different tools to overcome the consequential barriers to Internet use," says Cerf, who himself has a hearing impairment. "Let us commit ourselves to truly assuring that the Internet really is for everyone."
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