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[media] Does Barrier-Free Compute? Governing Magazine

From: Kathleen Anderson <kathleen.anderson@po.state.ct.us>
Date: Thu, 20 Apr 2000 13:08:49 -0400
Message-ID: <012d01bfaaeb$18b031e0$e924f79f@STATE.CT.US>
To: "'Web Accessibility Initiative'" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
April 2000  TECHNOLOGY COLUMN

at: http://www.governing.com/4tech.htm

Does Barrier-Free Compute?
Government Webmasters are still churning out pages of documents and forms
that can be unintelligible to the handicapped.

BY MARILYN C. COHODAS

My family has long lived by a commonsense maxim: If something seems too good
to be true, it probably is. The mass migration of public and private
services, transactions and information to the Internet brings the validity
of those words to mind.

What I'm referring to, specifically, is the dot-comming of state and local
government and the possibilities this has opened up for disabled citizens.
It's almost too good to be true. Well, as my dad would say, it is too good
to be true. While the Internet has provided millions of blind and
hearing-impaired individuals with powerful new ways to interact with the
world, the opportunities for the disabled are not keeping pace with the
latest innovations, and the Net risks becoming as unapproachable for someone
with a disability as a building with a steep staircase is to a person in a
wheelchair.

Consider the disabled Web surfer at a library who is stopped cold while
trolling for information because the adaptive technology installed on the
terminal is incompatible with the computer's Web browser. Or the blind urban
planner who hasn't been able to navigate databases on a city intranet since
an overhaul of the municipal information technology system rendered his
text-to-voice translating software inoperable. Or the deaf high school
student who is prevented from taking part in online biology laboratories
because he can't hear step-by-step audio instructions on the school's
computers.

To be fair, state and local governments are stepping up to the plate to
correct these problems. "Most states are doing an OK job with
handicapped-accessible Web site design," says Curtis Chong, director of
technology for the National Foundation for the Blind in Baltimore. "They're
not there yet, but I've yet to find a state that has developed a site that
is so bad I can't use it."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement. The truth is that, while laudable
barrier-free efforts are underway, government Webmasters are still churning
out pages of documents and forms that can be unintelligible to the
handicapped, according to Cynthia Waddell, San Jose's administrator for the
Americans with Disabilities Act, which compels public places to install
wheelchair ramps, Braille signs and other accessibility features.

Earlier this year Waddell, a lawyer with a hearing aid, conducted an
informal survey to see how many states posted accessibility policies on
their Web sites and what progress they had made in implementing them.
Halfway through the survey it became apparent that government inclusion
policy in cyberspace is little more than lip service. Some states - notably
California, New York and Texas - are taking beginning steps. The Texas
Education Agency, for one, will require all classroom CD-ROMs and Internet
materials to conform to accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web
Consortium by 2003. For the most part, though, Waddell found no shining
examples of leadership and action.

The foot dragging can be explained in part by the anticipation of federal
guidelines for complying with recent legislation that will jeopardize
funding if agencies don't provide employees and citizens with "equal access"
to technology by August 2000. But there is really no reason to wait. It's
just as easy to publish an accessible Web site at the front end of the
process at it is to publish an inaccessible one. Webmasters need only follow
a half-dozen or so simple rules that are readily available from
organizations such as the Web Consortium and the HTML Writers Guild. At the
back end, these same groups offer free software tools that, although
time-consuming, can retrofit existing pages almost as easily as a spell
checker examines a word processing file.

One thing is certain: to do nothing is to invite trouble. Even San Jose's
trailblazing site, which has won kudos for its accommodations and content,
was pioneered in 1996 in response to a complaint filed by a blind city
commissioner. The commissioner said that she couldn't read municipal
documents online because they were published in the still commonly used
Adobe portable document format that screen readers for the blind can't
decipher. Similarly, the state of California was pressed into action when a
student said his civil rights were violated because he was unable to log on
to a college long-distance learning program.

So far, Waddell says, the "growing avalanche" of administrative complaints
has been settled privately. But last fall, the NFB sued America Online for
not conforming to the landmark ADA. That filing suggests that future legal
challenges are likely to be mounted.

For state and local governments, however, the real challenge is not in
finding ways to avert lawsuits. The challenge is in making a commitment to
digital services that are available to all citizens. "Just as curb cuts
enable persons using wheelchairs to navigate city streets, electronic
equivalents of curb cuts enable persons with disabilities to navigate the
digital world," says Waddell. It's time to build those electronic curb cuts.


Copyright  2000, Congressional Quarterly, Inc. Reproduction in any form
without the written permission of the publisher is prohibited. Governing,
City & State and Governing.com are trademarks of Congressional Quarterly,
Inc.


posted by:
Kathleen Anderson, Webmaster
State of Connecticut, Office of the State Comptroller
55 Elm Street, Room 101, Hartford, Connecticut  06106
voice: (860) 702-3355  fax: (860) 702-3634
email: kathleen.anderson@po.state.ct.us
URL: http://www.osc.state.ct.us
CMAC Access: http://www.cmac.state.ct.us/access
AWARE: http://aware.hwg.org/
Received on Thursday, 20 April 2000 13:09:22 GMT

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