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Response to Stephen Ryan editorial 01/24/00

From: Bruce Bailey <bbailey@clark.net>
Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2000 11:47:46 -0500
To: <SRyan@Manatt.com>, <ttemin@gcn.com>
Cc: "Web Accessibility Initiative" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Message-ID: <002101bf68e6$3d8bc480$1aac66a7@151877>
Dear Editor,

I am writing to reply to Stephen M. Ryan's opinion piece (dated January 24,
2000) titled "Systems access for disabled is worthy but costly" which can be
found at your web site "Government Computer News" at URL:

Mr. Ryan perpetuates the myth that it is expensive to consider and include
the needs of persons with disability when designing electronic and
information technology systems.  He provides no evidence for this assertion
and compares the task with earlier achievements of the ADA, including ramps
and ASL interpreters.  Mr. Ryan is wrong.  The cost of inclusive design and
implementation is negligible, and the benefits far outweigh any additional
expense, especially when approached from a bottom-line accounting

Mr. Ryan writes:  "Everyone agrees that it's basically fair to remove
barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating fully in
society."  Is not even fairer NOT to build those barriers in the first
place?  We would not need curbcuts if we did not first build the curbs!
"Electronic curbcuts" are more easily constructed than the physical ones
and, if government and businesses are mindful, those "electronic curbs" can
easily be avoided altogether.

Retro-fitting an electronic information technology system to be accessible
IS expensive, but that is the wrong place in the equation to be examine this
issue.  Universal design, at the BEGINNING of a project adds very little
expense to a project's overhead.  Such considerations do not limit what can
be accomplished.  It is not fair to let a public business or agency "off the
hook" because they did not have the foresight to consider the needs of the
public before they released a "finished" product.  Poor planning early on
can mean that a project's cost almost doubles.  This maxim is true for
building construction as well as electronic information technology systems.
Incompetent architecture is hardly the fault of the disability community!

Computer access for persons with disabilities is actually a fairly mature
industry.  People have be addressing the challenges even before the first
days of the Apple II!  Even so, it is still not uncommon, for example, for
lay people to be perfectly amazed that a blind person can use a Windows
computer.  Even though this patronizing attitude may exists in pockets of
the population, government and industry leaders in technology can not be
excused and must be held to a higher awareness standard.

Allow me two examples.  The first I will address is touch-screen based
Information Transaction Machines (ITM) or kiosks.  The second is web
content.  There are universal design guidelines for most products between
these extremes, but I think these two areas best illustrate the issues and
their solutions.

Touch-screen kiosks seems like a very tough problem.  How can someone who is
blind work a touch screen when they don't know where to touch?  How can
someone with severe motor impairment (for example Cerebral Palsy, or
quadriplegia) hit the small buttons?  Even if one could design such a
system, would it not be terrible expensive and interfere with the way
everyone else would work with the kiosk?

Touch-screen kiosk typically have sound output.  That hardware can be used
to let a blind person know what is happening on-screen.  Adding speech
synthesis, if the system was not going to already incorporate it, costs only
a few dollars.  As for navigating the menus, interface protocols exist that
allow a person to need only find the left edge of the touch-screen bezel.
In order to address access for a person with very limited hand function, the
same design allows full control provided by a single large format switch.
Again, the additional manufacturing cost, if measurable, is at best a few
dollars.  Details about one design which provides for this multi-modal
control of an interactive touch-screen based multimedia machine can be found
at URL:
A shipping product that incorporates these access features can be found at

Access to the World Wide Web is an interesting issue because it really is
the first time that a sophisticated computer user (who happened to have a
disability) -- with full access to his computer, and full control of his
software application (the browser) -- could still frequently encounter
documents (content from web pages) that were not at all useable to him.
This is a very different situation than existed before with the exchange of
word processing, spread sheet, database, and other computer files.  It is
all the more frustrating because the design of accessible web content is not
hard and does not cost anything.  It is the considered opinion of informed
experts that creating accessible web sites does NOT impose any sort of undue
burden.  Please reference "Does it cost more to make a site accessible?" at

Moreover, it is actually in the enlightened economic self-interest for
private industry to follow universal design principals with regard to web
based content.  To do otherwise ignores not only the economic buying power
of persons with disabilities, but also rich folks with expensive toys
Internet surfing with their cell phones, car dashboard, and other high-tech
gadgetry.  Please reference "Selfish Reasons for Accessible Web Authoring"
at URL:

The AWARE site also includes a "Common Myths About Web Accessibility" page
that addresses the perceived cost issues.  To paraphrase from there, yes it
takes a little more time to create a web page that is interoperable,
platform-independent, and follows the industry standard W3C HTML 4.0
specifications.  It also takes more time to write if one bothers with
trivialities such as grammar, spell-checking, and proofreading.  Aren't both
problems an expected part of doing business on the Internet?

Standards exist for universal and accessible design not only for web
content, but most other consumer products.  These standards, by and large,
assert no limitations on the designs that software and hardware developers
can pursue.  Usually planners are asked to include additional features and
components.  These add-ons, when incorporated at the design and planning
stages, cost nothing to be implemented and, since they are text-oriented,
don't impact performance nor bandwidth.  The increased potential audience,
not to mention the improved ease of use achieved by incorporating these
practices, more than makes up for any additional expenses.

Persons interested in examining the claims I make here are encouraged to
visit the Trace Research Center whose mission is "Making information
technology more usable for everyone".  Their site is large, so I will take
the liberty of pointing out a couple of highlights.
"Designing a More Usable World for all" (DaMUW) -- "A cooperative effort to
change the world" includes a number of universal design standards.  It can
be found at URL:
"Access to Current and Next Generation Information Systems by People with
Disabilities" is a broad document that provides information and resources
for those interest in learning more about accessibility issues and the
National Information Infrastructure (NII), sometimes known as the
"information superhighway".  It can be found at URL:

Microsoft has an accessibility home page at URL:
The "Microsoft Windows Guidelines for Accessible Software Design" (MS WORD
format) can be downloaded at URL:

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) home
page is at URL:
This is another deep site.  It includes a prominent pointer to the
comprehensive Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and linked
techniques document.  For the purposes of this letter let me point out the
"Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Site" is brief enough that the W3C makes
it available on a business card!  The HTML version is at URL:

This response has been somewhat longer than I intended, so I apologize for
the length.  This is an area I feel passionate about.  As well-intentioned
Mr. Ryan's article may have been, he has done harm to the disability
community by perpetuating the same FUD and unfounded myths that opponents of
the ADA put out.  It is my hope that you print this letter and that Mr. Ryan
will issue some kind of retraction.  At the very least, I would expect to
see URLs listed that support his claims, so that this discussion may be
developed upon.  I thank you for your time.

Bruce Bailey
Webmaster for the Maryland State Division of Education (MSDE) Division of
Rehabilitation Services (DORS)
Maryland Rehabilitation Center
2301 Argonne Drive
Baltimore, MD  21218-1696
Received on Thursday, 27 January 2000 11:49:54 UTC

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