Accessibility for the ‘90s
For a number of ethical, legal and economic reasons that may not be obvious to average folk, you should consider some of the difficulties of disabled people as you build and maintain your company's Internet and intranet Web sites.
Several years ago, while leading a series of technical seminars, I learned a great lesson about accessibility from one of the students. John was attentive and inquisitive. He was remarkably insightful. He quickly grasped the course's most abstract technical concepts and used them skillfully to solve all the assigned homework problems. And, oh yes, did I mention he was blind?
I was a little worried when John first walked into my classroom, led by his guide dog Sally. The curriculum was supported by a lot of charts, graphs and diagrams. I wondered how John could possibly visualize all my PowerPoint slides. I worried about how other students in my over-full class would handle the extra time and attention I expected John to need from me.
My fears were dispelled by the first mid-morning break. From the start John asked great questions, volunteered excellent answers and was able to grasp the course content at least as quickly as everyone else. Sure, I had to offer him some extra help from time to time, but not very much. Before long I found myself overlooking his handicap and teaching at my usual pace.
I often think of John as I surf the Internet. Back then, to assist him with the course's terminal-based lab exercises, John brought an optical reader that raised the letters and numbers displayed on his screen as Braille imprints on a small pad. Running at 30 characters per second, John used this device to "read" the CRT screen and interact with the terminal. I wonder how John and his amazing character-reading device would cope with today's graphics-rich Internet?
We sighted folk get a kick out of the whizzy graphics, Java roll-overs and other effects that are the hallmark of the modern Web page. But, too often, these pages are noise to people such as John, who need special text-driven readers to navigate the Web. Others, with partial vision, might not be able to read green letters against a red background or read text displayed in fancy fonts. Still others, those with physical impairments that require the use of special pointing devices and keyboards, may not be able to select among several tightly packed "hotspots" on a too-busy Web page.
These accessibility roadblocks on the Information Superhighway can be avoided with a little extra care in Web page design. For example, the readers that blind people use to surf the Web extract ALT text out of displayed graphics and "say" them through the computer's speakers. This, of course, is dependent on your Web people taking the time to code useful ALT text when they write a page. Likewise, the pointing devices and special keyboards used by people with mobility challenges can make Web-surfing relatively easy -- but only when browsing properly designed pages.
To build accessibility into your Web site all it takes is a little management vision on your part, followed by the adoption of a few extra design guidelines. For some ideas, visit www.rs6000.ibm.com/sns/access.html.
And the payoff? Well, it is a decent thing to do. We can't afford to leave some of our finest minds on the shoulder of the Information Superhighway.
Still unmoved? There are several business reasons for handicap-accessible Web sites, too. The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and certain provisions of the Telecommunications Act have established the rights of disabled employees to access the information they need to do their jobs. So, by law, you may be mandated to build accessibility into your intranet Web pages. Further, under the same federal laws, you might be excluded from participating in certain government contracts for failing to build handicap-accessible Internet Web sites.
Finally, consider that before long as many as 10 percent of the people who use the Internet to buy products and services will be disabled, and they will never know what you have to offer if they can’t navigate your site.
Bottom line, invest some time and effort in building accessibility into your Internet and intranet services. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.