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[media] Designing for diversity

From: Kathleen Anderson <kathleen.anderson@po.state.ct.us>
Date: Mon, 9 Jul 2001 19:09:09 -0400
Message-Id: <200107091909.AA264896810@pop.state.ct.us>
To: <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
http://www.nua.ie/surveys/analysis/weekly_editorial.html

Designing for diversity 

Kathy Foley 

July 9, 2001

Accessibility is not the sexiest of Web-related issues. To those of us uninvolved in discussions on the subject, accessibility seems a rather worthy, earnest sort of topic, one beloved of a few techies who want to change the world using their programming skills. 

Well, accessibility is a worthy issue but it is also one that is becoming increasingly mainstream. The US government now requires all government agencies to have websites that can be used easily by blind people or those with other disabilities that make it difficult to browse the Internet in the usual way. 

The US is not alone in this. The governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and the UK have all issued accessibility guidelines, and most have made accessibility mandatory for all government sites. 

In light of these developments, the Irish Internet Association held a seminar on Web accessibility last week. I was soon struck by the fact that I had known absolutely nothing about accessibility before I went along to the seminar. One speech in particular, given by Mark Magennis from Frontend, an Irish company specializing in user interface design, really brought this lack of knowledge home. 

Mark showed a number of video clips of a blind Internet user navigating his way through an opera website using an audio browser. The rapid speed at which the audio browser "spoke" meant it was completely unintelligible to most of us there, at least initially. The user tried to find some simple information on the site, but gave up in frustration after 25 minutes, whereas a sighted user would have found that information in less than a minute. 

More than any other piece of information imparted by the speakers at the seminar, these video clips emphasized just how inaccessible most websites are. A site may look relatively easy to use but if the designers and programmers haven't followed the basic tenets of accessibility, that site will be all but unusable to users with sight or motor impairment. 

One of the other speakers at the seminar, Alexis Donnelly, a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin pointed out that Internet users with disabilities are not the only people who favor accessible sites. So do those with old equipment or software, slow connections, wireless devices, or text-only browsers such as Lynx. By having an inaccessible site, organizations are alienating a far bigger proportion of the Internet audience than they probably realize. 

The Web Accessibility Initiative, under the aegis of the World Wide Web consortium, has issued a comprehensive set of accessibility guidelines, each of which has been assigned a priority level of 1, 2, or 3. The WAI says that organizations should ensure that their sites meet all priority 1 guidelines as a minimum while they work on bringing their sites into line with priority 2 guidelines. A site that meets all guidelines is ideal, but one that meets all priority 1 and priority 2 guidelines is adequately accessible for most people. 

Basic accessibility is easily achieved by following a few simple steps: Mark up text for the Web correctly, using header and subheader tags; Ensure that the text in ALT tags adequately describes the image to which it is attached; Provide transcripts for radio or video clips; Reserve tables for presenting information in a tabular format, instead of using them for design purposes. It really is that simple. 

All of the speakers at the conference emphasized the importance of user testing. They also all said that an accessible website was generally a usable website, meaning that any Internet user will find an accessible website easier to use. As Donnelly pointed out, designing for diversity is designing for everyone. 

The other major factor that struck me about last week's seminar was the level of interest displayed by Dublin's Internet community in accessibility issues. There were twice as many attendees at the seminar than the IIA would normally have expected. Of course, the attendees' motivations probably varied. Some may have come out of genuine concern for disadvantaged Internet users, while others probably came out of a desire to be seen as politically correct, while the most cold-hearted just came along out of a fear of future litigation or prosecution. They all realized, however, that organizations without accessible websites will be looked down on in future. 
Received on Monday, 9 July 2001 19:09:27 GMT

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