To publish information for global distribution on the Internet, a globally understood language is required, one that all computers can potentially understand and interpret. The publishing language used by the World Wide Web is HTML (HyperText Mark-Up Language) and using this anyone can produce at least a basic webpage. As a result, more and more content is appearing on the World Wide Web daily, created by the average user, without much thought being given to its accessibility by other people.
Accessibility means providing flexibility to accommodate each user’s needs and preferences. In an Internet context, accessibility is making computer technology and Internet resources useful to more people than would otherwise be the case. We need Internet accessibility because it expands a Website’s potential audience to the millions who are required to use alternative browsing technologies.
Browsing the World Wide Web is an immensely visual experience. Button menus, animations, images are all used to set the mood of a website and help us to understand what the author is trying to achieve. The font used, the size of the text and the colour scheme all serve to guide us through the complex experience that is navigating the Web.
However, how would the nature of the browsing experience change if you tried doing it with your eyes shut? This may sound like a stupid idea at first, but hang on, don’t just dismiss it. In fact, go and try it and see what happens. Visit a website which you have not been to before and close your eyes shut – no cheating now! <10 minutes later> Ok, you’re back now, how was it? Would "nearly impossible" not even be close to describing it?
After your first experience of browsing the Web without the use of sight you may decide not to try that again, however, there is an entire sector of the population that have no choice. Many Internet users cannot use the full range of resources available. They may not be able to see, hear, move or be able to process some types of information easily or at all; they may not have or be able to use a keyboard or mouse; or they may be in a situation where their ears or hands are busy.
These users use adaptive technology with their computer to access the WWW. For example, a person who is blind may use a speech output system to read aloud text that is presented on the screen. In the case of blind users, or people who are using a telephone or a tiny handheld computer, and become functionally blind, it is much easier to hear material spoken out loud than to try and view it on a screen. People using this technology and other alternatives can experience difficulty using the WWW due to a clear lack of separation of the content, structure and presentation aspects of the pages. Sites designed to account for these users will more likely be beneficial to the Internet community as a whole, because this will result in better designed pages.
If the World Wide Web is to ever become a truly universal medium, then changes have to be made to make it accessible to everyone. Nowadays, most television programmes have subtitles for deaf viewers, buildings have been made accessible to wheelchair users, and books have been recorded so that people can listen to them – now it is time to apply these same principles to the Web!
If these were not reasons enough to make a Website accessible, there are many governments which are now considering accessibility policies which can be applied to the Web. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden. As a result of this policy, last year the National Federation for the Blind filed suit against America Online, arguing that AOL’s software did not work with screen readers, and is in direct contradiction of ADA. This lawsuit has since then been dropped, as AOL has agreed to make future versions of its software accessible.
There are many commendable efforts on the Web to make it more accessible. Microsoft Corporation has an Accessibility and Disabilities website (www.microsoft.com/enable/) which lists accessibility aids which are compatible with its products. A notable validating service that rewards accessible sites is "Bobby" (www.cast.org/bobby). The makers of Bobby at the Center for Applied Special Technology recommend that you use Bobby as a first test for your site, then invite users with disabilities to explore and comment. In April 1997 the World Wide Web Consortium launched the Web Accessibility Initiative at the Santa Clara WWW conference. The (W3C) is responsible for creating guidelines and educating the industry. If you wish you may also visit the Public Service Commission of Canada’s Web Page Accessibility Self-Evaluation Test (http://www.psc-cfp.gc.ca/eepmp-pmpee/access/welcome1.htm).
Yet these are but the first steps in making the Web accessible. At the moment the tools available are few, and existing guidelines for developing accessible websites are restricted to general accessibility issues.
For the time being, many of us can help, whether we are web developers, policy makers within an organization, or Internet users. We can make sure that our pages are accessible, we can recommend our organization to consider the issue of accessibility, and we can support the hard work that many people are doing to try and make the web a better place for all.
As Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C puts it: "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect".