Accessibility The Politics Of Design
Posted on 22 Jan 2001
by Alan Herrell (headlemur)
Rated 4.39 (Ratings: 19)
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In a Letter dated September 9, 1996, to Sen. Tom Harkin, Deval L. Patrick, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division had this to say,
"The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires State andlocal governments and places of public accommodation to furnishappropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensureeffective communication with individuals with disabilities,unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to theprogram or service or in an undue burden. 28 C.F.R. . 36.303; 28C.F.R. . 35.160. Auxiliary aids include taped texts, Brailledmaterials, large print materials, and other methods of makingvisually delivered material available to people with visualimpairments."
"Covered entities under the ADA are required to provideeffective communication, regardless of whether they generallycommunicate through print media, audio media, or computerizedmedia such as the Internet. Covered entities that use theInternet for communications regarding their programs, goods, orservices must be prepared to offer those communications throughaccessible means as well."This letter suddenly expanded the rules to include State and localgovernment websites. It also opens the door for interpretation ofaccessibility claims against commercial websites. If you have a .com thatdoes business with the government, you may need to determine if theseregulations apply to you. Lots of sites, Lots of Lawyers, connect thedots.This is Good News. Some of you are currently unemployed. The implosionof the pure play dot.com websites, has with the arrival of theseregulations, presents a golden opportunity for new jobs. A lot of new jobs.Before sending out those resumes, let's look at what work the government hasdone.
Uncle Sam Needs YOUThe regulations gave the enforcement authority to the Department OfJustice. On April 2, 1999, the Attorney Generalhref="http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/memohead.html" target="_blank"> issued amemorandum to the heads of all Federal agencies advising them of therequirements of Section 508 and providing instructions for conductingself-evaluations of their electronic and information technology.The United States Government has over target="_blank" title="First Gov. The US Government Portal ">20,000websites.
3,028 Web pages were surveyed. This effort on the part of the DOJ although representing a small samplewas a good faith effort to measure compliance and to give a heads up onthese regulations. This information was collected, collated and presented in a report. OnJuly 22, 1999 the Justice Department released href="http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/report/web.htm" target="_blank">thisreport on the state of Federal Websites. This report pointed out that anumber of tools and technologies currently in use for disseminatinginformation on the taxpayers dime are not accessible.title="Government Accessibility Report">Note 4 of this report states:
"4. The Department was careful to limit the degree andscope of conclusions drawn from the data provided by agencies, for thesimple reason that many of the components appeared to misunderstand some ofthe questions. Spot-checks conducted by the Department of the Web sites --the URL's of which were reported on the survey forms -- revealed that manyof them did not contain the features the components identified them ascontaining. For instance, 592 Web pages were identified as containing"applets." The Department, after reviewing a majority of thesepages, did not find a single applet in a spot-check of most ofthem."
"There are many possible explanations for this observation.It is possible that as components identified accessibility problems withcertain types of features (e.g., applets), they deleted the offendingfeatures from their Web pages rather than making them accessible. It is morelikely, however, that many of those who evaluated Web pages were notsufficiently careful or knowledgeable to correctly identify features oftheir Web pages."Taken to task in the presentation arena were Java applets, imagemaps,Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat .pdf filesWhile robust, Java applets have a number of issues which, in order topresent accessible information, makes their use problematic.Imagemaps with the correct use of alt-tags present less of achallenge, but require thought. PowerPoint presentations are severelylimited by not only accessibility concerns, but also by requiring acopy of PowerPoint to view.target="_blank">Adobe is one of the major players for tools that areused daily across the world for building websites. Adobe's PortableDocument Format is one of the most robust document formats. It gaveWhat-You-See-Is-What-You-Get or "WYSIWYG" real meaning. It is a very good format for presenting information considered final, whichis why it used extensively for legal documents. That's the good news. On July 22, 1999, the Department of Education issued an overall agencyreport. This report summarized the accessibility challenges faced byagencies which choose to put documents in Adobe Acrobat's pdf format:
The Portable Document Format (PDF) has provided one of the mostcontroversialaccessibility problems of the decade. PDF documents, by the nature of themedium, are portable, cross-platform, generally tamper-proof, and render inexacting detail, representations of the original print document's fonts,formatting,etc.According to the Justice Department report:
"17. Recently, in a presentation to federal agencyofficials and employees, representatives from Adobe explained that theirnewly released version of Adobe Acrobat included many accessibility featuresthat, if used correctly, could be used to create files that were easilyaccessible to users with disabilities. Adobe's Accessibility Seminar, Feb.2, 2000, IRS Building. Word processed documents that are "printed"to pdf instead of "scanned" to pdf are much more likely to workwell with Adobe's access utility. Adobe clarified that it seesits job as simply to provide the tools for making accessible files, not toteach users how to use these tools to make files more accessible."(My Emphasis)
This is the executive summary:
- 15 percent of government websites offer some form of disabilityaccess, such as TTY (Text Telephone) or TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf)or are approved by disability organizations.
- 4 percent offer foreign language translation features on theirwebsites
- 22 percent of government websites offer at least one onlineservice
- a few of the sites are starting to offer commercial advertising,which raises problematic issues for the public sector
- 91 percent of the sites responded to a sample email requesting theofficial office hours of the particular agency and three-quarters did sowithin one business day
- states vary enormously in their overall ranking based on ouranalysis. Texas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois rankedhighly, while Rhode Island, Delaware, New Hampshire, South Dakota, andNevada did poorly
- the best predictor of state rank was population size. Small stateshad access to fewer resources and had difficulty achieving economies ofscale necessary for technology initiatives
- in terms of federal agencies, top-rated websites included those bythe Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Treasury, Departmentof Agriculture, Department of Education, and Federal CommunicationCommission. Poorly ranked agency websites included the National SecurityCouncil, U.S. Trade Representative, White House, U.S. Postal Service, andThomas (the joint congressional website)
- in general, federal government websites did a better job ofoffering information and services to citizens than did state governmentwebsites
- judicial websites ranked more poorly on providing contactinformation than did executive or legislative sites
- there is a need for more consistent and standard designs acrossgovernment websites.
How many browsers support
?Welcome to browser hell. There are three major visual browsers, InternetExplorer, Netscape Navigator, and Opera. None of these allow you to use theentire range of accessibility tags. Nor is the support for the usable onesconsistent. Platform dependancy create rendering issues. Lynx is a textbrowser. Limited formatting and no visuals allowed here. Screen Readersrequire a whole new mindset in respect to using tables for presentingcontent.Testing, Testing, Testing.
You can build the cleanestpages possible and validate them, but unless you test them in every browseryou can get your hands on and get your friends who work in differentenvironments to test them, you will not be sure.Building valid websites is easy. Building compliant websites is hard. Youhave to make conscious decisions to include text browsers, screen readers,and aural information. Cascading Style Sheet support is such a mess thatzeldman has 1, 2, 3, 4 articles devoted to what you can't use. If you build websites for the goverment, you will probably get a bigmanual with chapter and verse. If you build websites for business, sooner or later the folks whose moneyyou took will probably get a email from someone who wants to buy yourclients stuff, but can't because you made a decision not to make their siteaccessible.These regulations point to a new era of website development.Accessibility in website design is not a crisis of confidence, it is achallenge to your creativity, knowlege, and ability to create a web foreveryone. Governments will do it, because it is our tax dollar. Companieswill do it because it is a bottom line issue. You will do it because youlove a challenge.
Further Readingtitle="Accessibility the clock is ticking" target="_blank">Accessibility the clock isticking
href="http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/508/508law.html" target="_blank">WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF1998
href="http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/foia/cltr204.txt" target="_blank">Effective CommunicationRule
Web ContentAccessibility Guidelines 1.0
href="http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-AUTOOLS/" target="_blank">W3C 'Authoring Tool AccessibilityGuidelines'
W3C 'UserAgentAccessibility Guidelines'
Accessibility: more than the right thing to do
A special thanks to Marlene Bruce for editing help.
This article originally appeared at A List Apart.