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NYTimes.com Article: Arts Online: Making Federal Web Sites Friendly to Disabled Users

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Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2001 12:05:40 -0700 (PDT)
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Arts Online: Making Federal Web Sites Friendly to Disabled Users



ot that anyone thought this was possible, but the Web sites of the
federal government are about to become less interesting. And from
at least one perspective, that may be good. 

 The catalyst for this change is a new set of standards intended to
make the government's Internet sites more accessible to people with
disabilities. The 16 guidelines take effect on June 21 and cover
everything from making sure that a Web page's colorful hyperlinks
can be read by colorblind users to supplying captions to accompany
audio and video clips for hearing-impaired people. 

 The goal of improved accessibility is beyond dispute. Yet as
federal Webmasters re-examine what they put online to meet the
requirements, they are likely to suppress their appetite for the
attention-grabbing visuals known as eye candy and multimedia treats
like animated graphics.

 "In the short run, there'll be a degree of conservatism," said
Walt Houser, Webmaster for the Department of Veterans Affairs,
meaning that the government's 30 million pages may start to recall
the Web sites of 1994, when text and graphics were nearly all that
could be found online.

 Web design is still a young form of graphic art. Its practitioners
are struggling to create an Internet that is more than a huge
volume of booklike pages on the computer screen. 

 Making the Internet accessible to people who cannot see, hear or
touch it adds a new dimension to the challenge. Web pages with text
and a few properly labeled images are relatively easy to make
accessible. Software for the blind that converts text into
synthesized speech, for instance, generally can read these pages
without a hitch.

 But the Internet's interactive and multimedia elements are not as
readily adaptable for people with disabilities. Adding captions to
video clips, for example, can take a lot of time, effort and money.

 So, to avoid legal disputes and limit costs, federal Webmasters
will scale back the amount of multimedia materials they use. Will
anyone notice? Probably not, especially because most government
sites are designed to deliver information, not entertainment.
Installing razzle-dazzle animation on the Internal Revenue Service
site would be akin to sticking tail fins on a truck.

 Does this just-the-facts approach to accessibility doom a site to
drabness? Judy Brewer, director of the accessibility initiative for
the World Wide Web Consortium, an industry group, said, "There are
so many myths in the area of Web accessibility, and one of them is
that an accessible Web page has to be dull and boring."

 Webmasters who spoke last week said the guidelines would not
affect the aesthetic impact of their sites or limit their creative
freedom. That may be because, with their emphasis on substance over
style, the sites are already pretty much indistinguishable from one
another. If you've seen one vertical menu bar with big buttons,
you've seen them all. The Webmasters should seize upon the
guidelines as a chance to add a dash of style to their sites. 

 No one expects federal agencies to produce sites with truly
cutting-edge designs. But there is a reason for them to push the
envelope a bit. In adopting the accessibility standards, the
government has become involved in a test case that has far-reaching
implications for multimedia design.

 The guidelines, put in place by recent amendments to Section 508
of the Rehabilitation Act, primarily address federal sites. Another
antidiscrimination law, the Americans With Disabilities Act, may
apply more broadly to the Internet.

 If the government can adjust to the standards, the thinking goes,
it may pave the way for extending them to other areas of
cyberspace. And the prospect of appealing to a mammoth customer
like the federal government may prompt software developers to work
harder to include accessibility features in their Web-building
tools and perhaps develop creative ways to do it.

 This is an important factor. While the Internet continues to
evolve, Web designers are trying to create more compelling sites
that convey information in effective and exciting ways. Making
sites useful to people with disabilities has been an elusive goal,
largely because the software tools do not make it easy. 

 Look, for example, at the Web site of the National Museum of
American History, at americanhistory.si.edu. As part of the
Smithsonian Institution, the museum is committed to making its site
accessible, although it is not required to adhere to the
federal-agency standards.

 For the site "Within These Walls," which chronicles the lives of
five families that lived in a single house over 200 years, the
museum built on its Web site a virtual exhibition with sliding
windows and other animated devices that encourage online visitors
to peer into nooks and touch every artifact.

 "What we were really after was a sense of exploration, so the
whole idea of interactivity was very important," said Donna
Tramontozzi, a founder of New Tilt, the Somerset, Mass., company
that created the site.

 But the designers could not find software that would allow them to
provide an accessible version of the same experience. They fell
back on building an alternative site that is generic in appearance
and offers fewer interactive opportunities. It is indeed drab.
(Advocates for people with disabilities are not fond of alternative
sites; they prefer including accessible features in the primary

 Can the experience of online interactivity be conveyed fully to
people with certain disabilities? "No one's been able to do it,"
Ms. Tramontozzi said. "People can deal with graphics. Motion's
really the thing. And it's not so much motion as meaningful

 Mike Paciello, author of "Web Accessibility for People With
Disabilities" (CMP Books, 2000), is optimistic that a future
version of the Internet might allow, say, a blind person to
experience a site through touch or smell.

 "Art, in its purest form, appeals to all the senses," Mr. Paciello
said. "Even though Beethoven could not hear, he could still write
music because he experienced it in a different way. The Web may
very well be pushing the envelope of the visual paradigm, but that
doesn't mean it can't be designed to a fuller, perhaps more
complete expression of art."

 Until then, some federal Webmasters are taking a more
philosophical approach to making their sites accessible.

 David Low, Webmaster for the National Endowment for the Arts, is
planning to revamp his site in the coming months. Like an artist
told he can paint only with blue and green, he welcomes the
creative challenge presented by the accessibility standards.

 "I don't find myself extremely brokenhearted by whatever
restraints may be placed on us because I do think less is more,"
Mr. Low said. "In kind of a Zen way, some of these parameters force
us to do something elegant that's relatively simple. And that's
what we'd want."  



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Received on Monday, 11 June 2001 12:10:40 UTC

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