ISSUE 554: The high tech office- June
Web accessibility for all is a
company's Web site accessible to the disabled?
It's been suggested that as many as 95
per cent of Web sites are inaccessible to the visually, hearing or
mobility impaired. (You can test your pages using the Bobby Test,
developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology at www.cast.org.)
The result is that many businesses are
simply writing off this large market segment. Some estimates count up
to 20 per cent of the population (about 60 million North Americans) as
disabled, with 8 per cent having disabilities severe enough to affect
their ability to use the Internet.
Ironically, in many cases, it doesn't
take much effort to improve a Web site's accessibility.
Visually impaired users can access the
Internet using text readers, but such software is stymied by graphics
including corporate logos and the like. But the HTML standard supports
so-called ALT tags, which allow Web page designers to add a brief text
description to their graphics. They are invisible on the page, but
accessible to text readers and to other users who may have turned
graphics off to speed their connections. Adding ALT tags to an existing
page takes a few minutes at most.
Other, more graphically heavy designs
may need to provide alternative versions, just as many sites currently
offer high-bandwidth (graphically intensive) and low-bandwidth
Being aware of potential problems when
beginning an online project, however, is better than trying to fix an
existing site. A page designed using frames, for example, can be
difficult for text readers to navigate. Again, such sites should
provide non-frame alternatives, both to improve access by the disabled
and for the many potential customers still using older browser versions
that lack frame support.
Sites with many audio-only versions of
speech similarly write off the hearing-impaired community if the sites
do not post speech transcripts on a timely basis.
More may be involved than just being
accessible to potential customers. In the U.S., for example, the National
Federation of the Blind is taking America Online to court,
claiming the giant online service provider has failed to make its site
accessible to the disabled. Graphical buttons on the service's banner
ads, for example, read "Tell me more" and "No thanks." Standard text
readers interpret them as the not-very-informative "button" and
"button," making proper choices more than a little difficult. And, of
course, AOL's classic "You've got mail" sound-bite needs an onscreen
text message to make it accessible to the hearing-disabled.
The NFB hopes that its pressure on AOL
could help set standards for the entire online industry. In AOL's case,
technicians with the company were aware of the problems and wanted to
correct them, but their proposals were lost in the company's
Making the Web more accessible requires
buy-in from both management and designers. Generally, management can be
convinced by arguments based on increasing the number of people who see
the sales information. Designer buy-in requires pointing out that
increased accessibility generally requires behind-the-scenes changes,
and needn't limit the look and feel of their designs.
The World Wide Web Consortium
has published a list of tricks and tips to improve Web site
accessibility and it's a remarkably short list. It's also well worth
consulting before embarking on a Web site design: www.w3.org/WAI/.
Best to do so before the lawsuit! *
checking out: Burnaby-based Indexonly Technologies promises to
change the way business uses the Internet. To back up that grandiose
claim, they offer a Web site allowing users in some 36,000 communities
in Canada and the U.S. access to a database containing listings of more
than 17 million businesses, arranged in 17,000 categories (www.indexonly.com).
like traditional search engines, they list businesses, not Web pages,
so companies are listed whether they are on the Net or not.
The site is fast, clean and simple.
Its business model encourages
advertising by letting local businesses ensure that their ads are
by local users who are potential
customers. Such targeted advertis-
ing allows Indexonly to offer ads at much lower rates than the big
search engines. *