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Wall Street Journal article on web accessibility

From: Jamal Mazrui <empower@smart.net>
Date: Wed, 09 Sep 1998 11:45:02 -0600
Message-Id: <199809091544.LAA22698@gemini.smart.net>
To: <webwatch-l@teleport.com>, <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>, <uaccess-l@trace.wisc.edu>, <basr-l@trace.wisc.edu>, <easi@maelstrom.stjohns.edu>, <vicug-l@maelstrom.stjohns.edu>, <blindtlk@nfbnet.org>
From the web page (available by subscription)

                   Blind Web Users Campaign
                   To 'See' More of Cyberspace

                   By NICK WINGFIELD 

                   A blind teacher from Portland, Ore., Kelly Ford navigates
the Web using
                   special "screen reader" software that dictates text from
Web sites, word
                   processors and other applications. But graphics and
elaborate Web-page
                   layouts routinely gum up the dictation.

                   "You're looking at a Web site through what I like to call a
soda straw,"
                   says Mr. Ford, adding: "If you're blind, man, the interface
ain't meant for

                   For many people with disabilities, the race to put
newspapers, references,
                   catalogs and chat lines on the Web stirred the promise of
access to a wave
                   of new information. But as the Web's design gets more
complex, disabled
                   Web surfers are growing worried that too many sites are
shutting them out.

                   Jay Leventhal, a resource specialist at the American
Foundation for the
                   Blind in New York who is blind himself, tried going on-line
for his account
                   information but says most of the home-banking sites don't
work with his
                   screen reader. "They're some of the worst," he says.

                   Geoff Freed, project manager of the Web-access project at
                   Boston public-television station, estimates from his
peregrinations around
                   the Web that less than 1% of sites have acted to make their
                   accessible to the disabled.

                   Simple Changes

                   Activists for the disabled say the design changes required
to make a Web
                   site accessible are simple: Alternative text versions of
the site, with written
                   descriptions of photographs, informational graphics and
image maps, are
                   helpful for the blind. Allowing control of a page's font
size aids other
                   visually impaired users.

                   Captions for Internet audio files are crucial for the deaf
and the dyslexic,
                   while subtle modifications can make it easier for users
with other physical
                   disabilities to navigate a Web page using voice-control
software or a
                   keyboard instead of a mouse.

                   "It's not hard to do," says Phil Santoro, a spokesman for
Big Yellow, an
                   Internet directory service operated by Bell Atlantic Corp.
Revamping the
                   site to make it accessible for the disabled was simple
enough, he adds, that
                   Big Yellow didn't bother researching how many of its users
were actually

                   Frustrated blind users are also getting relief from on-line
companies that
                   don't use the Web: One company in Vancouver, British
Columbia, General
                   Store International Corp., plans to give disabled customers
a free
                   television set-top computer with screen-reader software so
they can shop
                   for groceries from a CD-ROM catalog.

                                        When the sites work well, they can be
                                        invaluable boons for people with
                                        Mr. Ford says that digital versions of
                                        publications enable him to indulge a
                                        for sports news without relying on
someone to
                                        read the paper to him.

                   'Awe and Wonder'

                   "I cannot explain to you the awe and wonder the first time
I could read a
                   paper on-line," says Mr. Ford, who runs an e-mail list
focusing on
                   blindness issues and the Internet. "All my life I could
never read the

                   Web accessibility has some big-name backers. Microsoft
Corp. has
                   devoted a full-time staff to incorporating
disability-friendly features into its
                   software. The Redmond, Wash., software giant's
accessibility program
                   dates back to 1988, when the company was contacted by the
                   Center, a research and development group at the University
of Wisconsin,
                   Madison, about making its Windows 2.0 operating system
easier for
                   disabled people to use.

                                       Accessible Sites

                   How do you make a Web site accessible to the disabled? Some
tips from the
                   W3C Web Accessibility Initiative:

                        Provide alternative text for images 
                        Provide text equivalents for audio information 
                        Ensure that text and graphics are perceivable when
viewed without
                        Format tables so they can be understood by
text-to-speech or
                        Braille software 

                   Source: W3C www.w3.org/WAI

                   But Microsoft's track record on accessibility has been
mixed. Last year,
                   the company touted a host of new accessibility features in
the new version
                   of its Web browser, Internet Explorer 4.0. But the
redesigned browser
                   didn't work with an older set of programming hooks in
Windows, known
                   as Active Accessibility, that had improved the way screen
readers worked
                   with other applications.

                   The Explorer problems annoyed many blind users, who were
further irked
                   when Microsoft released an upgrade to the browser that
contained other
                   glitches. "It was really a major problem, and Microsoft
didn't do a good
                   job on that," admits Greg Lowney, Microsoft's director of
                   "That was a real disappointment, especially for people in
the blind
                   community. They really let us know that."

                   Top Priority

                   Microsoft took notice. In February, the company hosted an
                   day at its headquarters, where Chairman Bill Gates
reassured an audience
                   of disability experts and others that accessibility was a
top priority. The
                   company also expanded its disability design team and
appointed Mr.
                   Lowney director of the program.

                   Microsoft's struggles with Internet Explorer highlight a
chronic problem for
                   disabilities activists: the unforeseen glitches caused by
constant software
                   upgrades. But another problem is making site operators
aware that they
                   are shutting out the disabled.

                   Mr. Lowney says part of his mission at Microsoft is to
                   programmers that not everyone is like them. "One of the
greatest sources
                   of problems is that designers of Web sites and applications
are often young
                   people whose eyesight is 20-20 and who have dexterous
fingers," he says.
                   "If they like the mouse, they think everyone else does."
(The Wall Street
                   Journal Interactive Edition provides textual descriptions
of graphics and a
                   text-only table of contents that simplifies navigation for
blind users.)

                   In 1996, the U.S. Justice Department stated that the
Americans with
                   Disabilities Act, a groundbreaking law requiring government
and other
                   public facilities to make themselves accessible to the
disabled, may apply
                   to the Internet. To some, that has raised the possibility
that disabled users
                   could sue Web site operators who fail to make that site

                   Scott Marshall, vice president for governmental relations
at the American
                   Foundation for the Blind, says there is still so much
ambiguity surrounding
                   the relevance of the ADA and other laws to cyberspace that
he doubts
                   whether they would provide much aid in court.

Nick Wingfield
Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition
Direct: 415-765-6102

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Received on Wednesday, 9 September 1998 11:45:51 UTC

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