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ISSUE 554: The high tech office- June 6 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Web accessibility for all is a profitable gesture

Is your 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 (text-heavy) versions.

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 bureaucracy.

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! *

 

Worth 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). Un-
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 viewed
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.
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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan