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A World Wide Web Without Barriers

April 2002

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."
-- Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Boston, MA -- Imagine a building with stairs at every entrance. Most people take coming and going for granted, but someone with limited mobility sees the building as a fortress. When the owners add ramps to the building, it turns out that everyone likes them. The building becomes accessible to people in wheelchairs, baby strollers, bikes, delivery carts, and a host of other mobility devices. Entrance becomes device independent.

"Too many web sites are built like buildings without ramps," according Judy Brewer. As Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) (http://www.w3.org/WAI/) for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), she is trying to raise awareness about improving web accessibility among information architects, software developers and users. To this end, WAI coordinates technology developments, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development of organizations worldwide.

New and Improved for All
For people with poor vision or hearing, physical immobility, or cognitive or neurological disabilities, the Web offers new freedom to communicate and access information. However, complicated image map navigation, vague text, and other design elements can stump text readers and other assistive technology.

"People inadvertently create barriers," says Brewer. "People are not aware of how to make it accessible. They forget to add descriptions of images and captions of audio, and to mark up tables and frames properly so that they can be read by screen readers."
When software developers and web site architects adopt accessibility strategies, the resulting sites become device independent. Not only do the strategies include people with disabilities, but open up content to many different user devices such as PDAs, kiosks and mobile phones.

Unexpected Limitations
As educational web sites proliferate for classroom use and to communicate with parents, they should be open to all. A few measures can ensure that everyone has access: a student who needs their homework assignment, a parent who wants information about a fieldtrip, or a community member eager to volunteer.

According to Larry Goldberg, Director of Media Access at the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (http://ncam.wgbh.org): "What's essential is that mainstream technologies support accessibility. Sometimes the technology can be used without any changes or assistive technology (AT). This is 'native accessibility'. Sometimes AT tools such as screen readers or voice recognition software are needed to access a web page or browser."

Opening the Door
" It's not technical, it's human," says Goldberg. "It's getting people to understand that there is a problem and there are solutions."

The WAI quick tips list (http://www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/) of ten items includes: use the alt attribute to describe images and animations; provide descriptions and transcriptions of audio and video; and use headings and consistent structure. The site also includes evaluation tools and more detailed guidelines. These changes will help make a page available to the visually impaired, the hearing impaired, people who cannot move their hands, people with cognitive disabilities or developmental disabilities, as well as a host of new and yet to be developed access tools for all users.

"You don't need to take a site that has complex ideas and make it less so," Brewer says. "You make sure that it is not more complex then it should be. You simplify the language and make navigation consistent. You can replace vague text such as 'click here' with more specific text. And these changes benefit all users."

Resources for Teachers
Many educators use Learning Object Repositories for content to create lesson plans. These web sites are like file folders of worksheets, organized by subject matter, grade level and other criteria. Teachers can check out a learning object, adapt it for use in their classroom, and then return it with a record of the changes made. The repositories have become learning communities with a knowledge base of useful content.

The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto (http://www.utoronto.ca//atrc/) is developing the Barrier Free repository. It requires that the content and structure be separate from the presentation. If this is done the same content can be presented in many different ways depending on the needs of the learner and the learner can navigate through the structure in the manner that best suits their learning goals.

Improve the Authoring Tools
The Authoring Tools Guidelines Working Group of WAI takes a step back from content creation to look at development tools. Working Group members from academia, industry and non-profit organizations have defined techniques, recommendations and evaluation tools available at http://www.w3.org/WAI/AU/.

"The most powerful place to effect web accessibility is through the developers," says Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Adaptive Technology Research Center, University of Toronto, and Chair of the W3 Consortium Authoring Tools Guidelines Working Group. "Guidelines still require people to know about them. The authoring tools could prompt for the appropriate markup."

The opportunity to publish on the Web offers people with disabilities new freedoms and opportunities. The Working Group ensures that the developers also consider access for people with disabilities in the interface of their tools. The next challenge for the group is dynamic web sites. Server templates, scripts, and learning management systems need an evaluation and repair structure to make content from many sources accessible.

Reaching a Wider Audience
Through her work with companies and content creators around the world, Judy Brewer finds that when people become aware of the problem, they want to improve their Web sites. They recognize that the adoption of these strategies is a best practice that enlarges their market. By making content device independent, they broaden their audience to include people with disabilities and users of new technology.

In addition, accessibility laws increasingly address technology and information access. Forward-thinking companies have products ready for the entire market. Finally, many companies see adoption of accessibility an opportunity to show leadership in social responsibility.