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PC Week article on "Disabling Web Barriers"

From: <empower@smart.net>
Date: Tue, 12 May 1998 14:55:47 -0800
Message-Id: <199805121854.OAA03046@gemini.smart.net>
To: uaccess-l@trace.wisc.edu, telecom-l@trace.wisc.edu, nfbcs@nfbnet.org, vicug-l@maelstrom.stjohns.edu, easi@maelstrom.stjohns.edu, webwatch-l@teleport.com, basr-l@trace.wisc.edu, w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
From the web site http://www.pcweek.com

Disabling Web barriers
Dynamic content, multimedia advancements could foil disabled users

By Michael Moeller
PC Week Online
May 12, 1998


Jamal Mazrui browses the Web as many users do these days. He
surfs online and downloads pages to an offline reader. But
there's one important difference: Mazrui is blind.

A legislative analyst at the National Council on Disability, in
Washington, Mazrui can browse 80 percent of the Web using the
Lynx text browser and text-to-speech software to translate HTML
code into usable information.

But that access is being threatened as Web sites become more
complex and as the software for aiding disabled users loses
ground to the advancements of dynamic content and multimedia.
The potential impact is major, not only on disabled users, but
also on the online merchants that depend on a constant flow of
new customers. "Accessing commercial sites is becoming harder,
since many of them are using VBScript or JavaScript, which can't
be translated into text," said Mazrui. "What scares me is VRML
[Virtual Reality Modeling Language]. If it takes off, there is
no way that [visually impaired users] will be able to access
that information."

He isn't alone. Experts say more than 90 percent of all Web
sites have some barriers to users with physical or cognitive
disabilities.

The World Wide Web Consortium, research institutes and software
vendors are jointly attacking the problem, recommending Web
design practices that make the most out of accessibility
features that have been added to the latest Web standards such
as HTML 4.0 and Java.

Design goals for building accessible Web sites and adding
automated functions to authoring tools and browsers are due to
be published by the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative
International Program Office over the next few months.

Solutions being considered include using style sheets instead of
customized HTML tags; adding text behind image maps, scripts or
applets; and providing transcripts for audio or video content.

Vendors are addressing the problems as well. Microsoft Corp. is
preparing to release a set of APIs that will add closed
captioning to streaming media. Sun Microsystems Inc. added
accessibility features to the Java Foundation Classes released
earlier this year; they will be part of Java Development Kit 1.2
this summer. Netscape Communications Corp. is counting on its
source code developers to beef up disability support in its
browser.

Improving technology, however, is only the tip of the
accessibility iceberg. "Even if we throw all our technology at
[accessibility], the biggest effort needs to be educating
developers," said Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace
Research & Development Center at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, a leading center for technology access
studies.

Indeed, few sites are even aware a problem exists. To show just
how inaccessible a site can be, the Center for Applied Special
Technology has created a tool called Bobby, which is available
at www.w3c.org and www.cast.org.

Other developers say they need standards for enabling access to
disabled users.

"[Access] comes up in discussions, but we have a hard enough
time just working with the different browsers," said Mark
Benerofe, vice president of Sony Online Ventures, in New York.
"It is nearly impossible for us to address all the needs of the
disabled."

Commercial Web sites that don't address those needs may find
themselves in legal trouble. In a 1996 opinion, the U.S.
Department of Justice indicated that Web sites run by government
agencies or by companies that use the Web to sell goods fall
under the same access guidelines as other public accommodations.

"The way the [Americans with Disabilities Act] works is that its
applicability is tested when someone files suit," said Geoff
Freed, director for WebAccess, a nonprofit organization in
Boston that is working to enable closed captioning on the Web.
"That is what's going to have to happen here."

To prevent accessibility from becoming a legal battleground, the
W3C and partners are pushing the new guidelines and will try to
sell IT managers on the crossover benefits of access
technologies to workers in "hands-busy" or "eyes-busy"
environments such as shop floors or operating rooms.

"This is about not only keeping the Web open for those with
disabilities," said Judy Brewer, director of the accessibility
project at the W3C, in Cambridge, Mass., "but for everyone as
the Web evolves."

Mazrui agrees that accessibility has a huge upside: "Even with
accessibility being an issue, the Web has been a great
equalizer. I have access much quicker to more information than
ever before."


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Received on Tuesday, 12 May 1998 14:55:55 GMT

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