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Accessibility Article on Fox News Online Today

From: Wilson Craig <Wilsonc@Hj.com>
Date: Fri, 20 Nov 1998 08:30:06 -0500
To: <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Cc: <hjstaff@Hj.com>
Message-ID: <000001be1489$e30233c0$420f5acf@wilson>
I thought you might be interested in this article, which appears on the Fox
News Online web site at www.foxnews.com, today.

Disabled Web Surfer's Case May Prove
A Bellwether for Accessibility Standards
7.17 a.m. ET (1217 GMT) November 20, 1998 By Patrick Riley

The term "handicapped accessible" has become synonymous with ramps, sloped
curbs, wide bathroom stalls and parking spaces close to the store.

Now the phrase may be about to take on a meaning for the World Wide Web.

A formal complaint filed earlier this month by Randy Tamez, who is legally
blind, against San Francisco's Metropolitan Transit Commission charges that
its Web site, and the bus and train schedules therein, is inaccessible to
his screen-reader technology and therefore in violation of the Americans
With Disabilities Act.

"This is probably just the first of any number of challenges that will apply
the ADA to the Web," said Geoff Freed, project manager for the Web Access
Project of the National Center for Accessible Media at Boston PBS station
WGBH. "No matter how this suit is settled, it's going to have huge

Passed in 1990, the ADA mandated that the disabled be provided with
"effective communication" from the government or in "places of public
accommodation." That the law doesn't specifically address the Internet may
not matter.

"The ADA was written in such a way that it was open ended so that it could
accommodate future technologies," Freed said. "The ADA probably has some
implications for the Web and this guy's suit will certainly test that."

The best indication that the regulations may apply to the Web came in a 1996
comment from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department which said
that "covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective
communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through
print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet."

A fully sighted reader will see the bus schedule graphic (foreground), but
screen-reading software will only register the presence of an image, not the
information it contains

 "If it is found that the ADA does apply to the Web," Freed said, "then
everybody on the Web will have to consider how they should make their sites
more accessible for the simple reason that what's on the Web is public
information." Such a ruling could apply to everything from voting
information at a government site to retail sites like Amazon.com.

Government regulation of the Internet remains a hot button topic, with many
Netizens staunchly against it. Freed feels this may be an area where an
exception would be allowable. "Sometimes a little regulation can go a long
way," he said.

It is no coincidence that the issue is gaining steam as the technologically
advancing Web moves increasingly into non-text-based areas, such as pictures
and audio and video clips.

"As the Web becomes a much more graphically oriented interface," Freed said,
"people who are deaf, blind or hard of hearing are being shut out."

For now, as sound is still an underutilized part of the medium, it is the
visually impaired who face greater difficulties than the deaf.

For the most part, text is portrayed in one of two ways on a Web page:
inside a graphic or in the page's HTML, the language a browser reads to
create the page. Screen-reading programs such as Winvision, Windoweyes and
JAWS read aloud the text encoded in a Web site's HTML.

But when the software gets to an unidentified graphic, it will simply say
"image" and move on to the next bit of text. Because text is increasingly
rendered in image format instead of in HTML, this often results in key
information being bypassed.

A simple solution to this problem, experts say, can be implemented at the
programming level, by offering users a "text-only" option that eliminates
images, or through the use of "alt tags" that describe in words what is
shown in the images. Such steps are commonly taken today but are by no means
the norm.

Changing this will take education, said Freed, who estimates that less than
one percent of Web sites are as accessible as they could be. "Most people
who design Web sites are ignorant in that they just don't know that they can
design them more accessibly," he said.

Detailed steps that address the user-unfriendliness of the Web for the
disabled have been compiled by the Web Access Initiative of the World Wide
Web Consortium (W3C). A working draft of guidelines for authoring tool
manufacturers released last week joins other recommendations for Web page
creators and users.

"The W3C is a large and respected body on the Web," Freed said. "So if the
W3C puts its weight behind access issues, then a lot of people are going to
sit up and take notice."

Any sites that disregard such guidelines run the risk of frustrating a good
many users. A 1996 survey by the American Foundation for the Blind found
that 29 percent of blind and visually impaired Americans had a computer in
their homes, and 12 percent had Internet or other online access. Overall,
almost 40 percent had used a computer.

The federal government seems to be keeping this audience in mind.

Doug Wakefield of the government's Office of Technical and Information
Services, who is blind, said his office is currently working on a set of
standards due out next year that will mandate that government Web sites be
accessible, something which Wakefield said could have a sweeping, if
indirect, effect on the private sector.

"Just remember, the government is an awful big customer," he said. If
industry makes products available to the government that allow for
accessible Web designing, he added, "they're not going to sell it just to
the government, it becomes available for anybody."

For its part, the San Francisco MTC is working to better its Web presence,
according to Jay Miyazaki, manager of administrative services. He said work
on the site had been proceeding with input from the commission's Elderly and
Disabled Advisory Committee before an initial e-mail complaint was filed by

It is more than just the disabled who have had problems with the MTC's site,
Miyazaki said.

"We have had some problems with our Web site because it couldn't be accessed
by simpler computers," he said. "It had too many bells and whistles."

Wilson Craig
Marketing Manager/Webmaster
Henter-Joyce, Inc.
Received on Friday, 20 November 1998 08:29:16 UTC

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