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[media] Disability Divide (The Industry Standard - July 3, 2000)

From: Kathleen Anderson <kathleen.anderson@po.state.ct.us>
Date: Wed, 28 Jun 2000 14:23:59 -0400
Message-ID: <007301bfe12e$07055b40$e924f79f@STATE.CT.US>
To: "'Web Accessibility Initiative'" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Finding unexpected barriers online, many Internet users are pushing
companies to make good on the promise of universal access.


Text follows:

Disability Divide

Finding unexpected barriers online, many Internet users are pushing
companies to make good on the promise of universal access.

By Karen Solomon

You would never intentionally design a Web site to not be viewed by the
state of Kentucky. Nor make it inaccessible to guys named Louie. But the
vast majority of the Web arbitrarily excludes the 54 million disabled
Americans, who constitute the largest national minority.

When seasoned Web surfer Roger Petersen, whose vision is impaired, goes
online to find health information or shop for CDs, he uses the most advanced
screen-reading technology to help him view Web sites. But he still can't
read a great portion of the Internet. "About half of the sites I visit I can
really use, and another 25 percent I can partly use." The remainder of the
Web is saddled with design specifications or technologies that make it
unreadable to Petersen.

A recent Harris poll found that disabled people go online and use e-mail
twice as much as people without disabilities do. And nearly half of those
with disabilities say the Internet has "significantly improved" the quality
of their lives, as opposed to a quarter of those Internet surfers without
disabilities who say the same thing. Yet access is a daily problem for
Petersen and 3 million other disabled U.S. Web surfers. While the disabled
benefit from using the Web, they still find as much frustration as
information online, and they are pushing to make the Internet as universal
as its boosters claim it to be.

"It's a frustrating and irritating time for people with disabilities," says
Cynthia Waddell, the Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator for the
city of San Jose, Calif. She notes that while the rest of the Internet world
is enjoying unprecedented convenience, the disabled have had to fight to
bank online, vote online or even use America Online (AOL) .

Medical transcriptionist Rose Combs is blind. She goes online daily to read
e-mail and catch up with local news. Getting Internet access makes it "much
easier for me to read my local news, do research and pick up tidbits of
information," she wrote in a recent interview conducted through e-mail.
"Also, I can keep in touch with family without spending a lot of money."

But when Combs went online to vote in the Arizona Democratic primary, the
first election to be held on the Web, her screen reader couldn't translate
the Election.com Web site. This experience made an activist of Combs. "I
honestly believe that it is my right to be able to vote in private just like
the millions of other people in the nation." With assistance from the
National Federation of the Blind, Combs successfully lobbied Election.com to
make its online voting accessible to screen readers.

Struggles like Combs' are slowly pushing companies to make changes. The ADA
requires that communication, as well as public spaces, be accessible to the
disabled, and on that basis the National Federation of the Blind sued
America Online in November, claiming AOL isn't usable for those with vision
impairments. While no one has ever gone to court for Net access under the
ADA, advocate Waddell believes the AOL case could establish a precedent in
the courts.

For now, Net-access cases are being settled out of court. Roger Petersen and
the California Council of the Blind negotiated a settlement with the Bank of
America (BAC) to get ATMs and a disabled-accessible online banking site.
Since the council took action, 15 talking ATMs have been installed, with
2,500 more scheduled in California and Florida over the next three years.

While the Bank of America and Election.com victories are steps toward a
disabled-accessible Internet, not all Web companies and institutions have
been so quick to adapt to special needs. Browsing for a day without Java or
images enabled will clue you in to the handicapped experience on the Web.
Top brand sites are still surrounded by a mote of inaccessibility, from the
cards at American Greetings (AM) to the groceries at Webvan to the sleek
stylings of Fashionmall.com, the Gap or the Sharper Image (SHRP) .

"The whole idea of Web accessibility is equivalent to putting ramps
everywhere, but at the same time it's important to build wheelchairs that
can climb stairs," says Petersen. Combs and Petersen rely on screen-reading
programs such as JAWS, or text composition programs such as DragonFly, to
make their home and work computers readable. Other adaptive technology
includes text magnifiers, multimedia captioning and foot-powered or
head-controlled mice and keyboards. But no matter how advanced technology
becomes, says Petersen, "We also need site designers to consider their
design. We need [these two technologies] to meet in the middle."

Even with the assistance of the best adaptive technology, the basic
construction of a Web site can keep some people from getting access, due to
a lack of awareness of the disabled person's needs. Examples include sites
that use Flash, animation and uncaptioned video or audio without any backup
text explanation. Or sites using Java that hasn't been adapted for the
handicapped. In short, the majority of big-ticket sites that sell, educate
or entertain with glitter and glitz often exclude the disabled.

"I've never thought about user interface from the perspective of a disabled
user," says Web developer Kim Roche. "People don't consider it that
important. When it's brought up in the workplace, it's quickly dismissed
because people think [the disabled are] only a small percent of the

But that perception is untrue. With 3 million disabled people in the U.S.
already on the Internet and 53 million more to go, if your Web site isn't
universally accessible when your audience is ready, it will get left behind.
"If your site is painful to read, users have 15 million other places to go,"
says Jakob Nielson, user advocate and author of Designing Web Usability. For
site architects that want to do the right thing, the World Wide Web
Consortium, which lobbies for a sensibly designed, universally accessible
Internet, has established a lengthy set of guidelines for a fully accessible
site. "The primary issues for universal design are labeling graphics,
buttons and everything with standard text," says Petersen. Navigation with a
keyboard, rather than a mouse, is also critical, he adds. And if your site
is Java-based, be sure to include Java-accessibility utilities so that
everyone can get in. "Another primary thing is getting people with
disabilities to test your site," says Petersen. "There's no substitute for

Combs just wants the independence and the flexibility enjoyed by everyone
else. "I'd like commercial sites to realize that there are many people who
could and would use their services if they could navigate the pages. It
would be really nice if I could do my grocery shopping here from my desk and
not need to request assistance at the store, take a cab or get a neighbor or
friend to come along to help."

While the output of the Web for the disabled isn't perfect, it's better than
in most media, and it also could be the easiest to improve. Petersen is
"pretty satisfied" with his Web usage: "I can get done what I need to, but
it's a lot harder than it needs to be. It's getting better. But it's still a
lot easier to make a page accessible than a building."

end text

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 Wednesday, 28 June 2000 14:24:16 UTC

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