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Accessibility The Politics Of Design

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Alan Herrell

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User since: 30 Aug 1999

Articles written: 13

A little over a year ago I wrote an href="/article/Accessibility_The_Clock_is_Ticking/4090/485/index.html/"

title="Accessibility, the clock is ticking">article here on the upcoming

target="_blank">U.S. Accessibility Regulations for the web. Section 508

of the WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF 1998, which required all United

States Federal Agencies, with websites, to have them accessible to

individuals with disabilities, within 24 months of

enacting of this law.

The target="_blank" title="Final Standards">Regulations are finally out and

the clock has started ticking again.

"But I don't work for the government," you cry! Probably true.

But the impact of these regulations will extend far beyond the .gov domain.

If you work for a University or other .edu that takes federal grants and

have a website, surprise! It's gonna be your day in the barrel


One of the lesser known provisions of the The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the "effective communication rule"

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 and

local governments and places of public accommodation 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. 28 C.F.R. . 36.303; 28

C.F.R. . 35.160. Auxiliary aids include taped texts, Brailled

materials, large print materials, and other methods of making

visually delivered material available to people with visual


"Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide

effective communication, regardless of whether they generally

communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized

media such as the Internet. Covered entities that use the

Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or

services must be prepared to offer those communications through

accessible means as well."

This letter suddenly expanded the rules to include State and local

government websites. It also opens the door for interpretation of

accessibility claims against commercial websites. If you have a .com that

does business with the government, you may need to determine if these

regulations apply to you. Lots of sites, Lots of Lawyers, connect the


This is Good News. Some of you are currently unemployed. The implosion

of the pure play websites, has with the arrival of these

regulations, 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 has


Uncle Sam Needs YOU

The regulations gave the enforcement authority to the Department Of

Justice. On April 2, 1999, the Attorney Generalhref="" target="_blank"> issued a

memorandum to the heads of all Federal agencies advising them of the

requirements of Section 508 and providing instructions for conducting

self-evaluations of their electronic and information technology.

The United States Government has over target="_blank" title="First Gov. The US Government Portal ">20,000

3,028 Web pages were surveyed.

This effort on the part of the DOJ although representing a small sample

was a good faith effort to measure compliance and to give a heads up on

these regulations.

This information was collected, collated and presented in a report. On

July 22, 1999 the Justice Department released href="" target="_blank">this

report on the state of Federal Websites. This report pointed out that a

number of tools and technologies currently in use for disseminating

information 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 and

scope of conclusions drawn from the data provided by agencies, for the

simple reason that many of the components appeared to misunderstand some of

the questions. Spot-checks conducted by the Department of the Web sites --

the URL's of which were reported on the survey forms -- revealed that many

of them did not contain the features the components identified them as

containing. For instance, 592 Web pages were identified as containing

"applets." The Department, after reviewing a majority of these

pages, did not find a single applet in a spot-check of most of


"There are many possible explanations for this observation.

It is possible that as components identified accessibility problems with

certain types of features (e.g., applets), they deleted the offending

features from their Web pages rather than making them accessible. It is more

likely, however, that many of those who evaluated Web pages were not

sufficiently careful or knowledgeable to correctly identify features of

their Web pages."

Taken to task in the presentation arena were Java applets, imagemaps,

Microsoft PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat .pdf files

While robust, Java applets have a number of issues which, in order to

present accessible information, makes their use problematic.

Imagemaps with the correct use of alt-tags present less of a

challenge, but require thought. PowerPoint presentations are severely

limited by not only accessibility concerns, but also by requiring a

copy of PowerPoint to view.

target="_blank">Adobe is one of the major players for tools that are

used daily across the world for building websites. Adobe's Portable

Document Format is one of the most robust document formats. It gave

What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get or "WYSIWYG" real meaning.

It is a very good format for presenting information considered final, which

is why it used extensively for legal documents. That's the good news.

On July 22, 1999, the Department of Education issued an overall agency

report. This report summarized the accessibility challenges faced by

agencies which choose to put documents in Adobe Acrobat's pdf format:

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has provided one of the most


accessibility problems of the decade. PDF documents, by the nature of the

medium, are portable, cross-platform, generally tamper-proof, and render in

exacting detail, representations of the original print document's fonts,



According to the Justice Department report:

"17. Recently, in a presentation to federal agency

officials and employees, representatives from Adobe explained that their

newly released version of Adobe Acrobat included many accessibility features

that, if used correctly, could be used to create files that were easily

accessible 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 work

well with Adobe's access utility. Adobe clarified that it sees

its job as simply to provide the tools for making accessible files, not to

teach users how to use these tools to make files more accessible."

(My Emphasis)

target="_blank">Information Technology and People with Disabilities:

The Current State of Federal Accessibility April 2000

The government has done its homework.

A private report came out in September: Assessing E-Government: The

Internet, Democracy, and Service Delivery by State and Federal


This is the executive summary:

  1. only 5 percent of government websites show some form of security

    policy and 7 percent have a privacy policy
  2. 15 percent of government websites offer some form of disability

    access, such as TTY (Text Telephone) or TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf)

    or are approved by disability organizations.
  3. 4 percent offer foreign language translation features on their

  4. 22 percent of government websites offer at least one online

  5. a few of the sites are starting to offer commercial advertising,

    which raises problematic issues for the public sector
  6. 91 percent of the sites responded to a sample email requesting the

    official office hours of the particular agency and three-quarters did so

    within one business day
  7. states vary enormously in their overall ranking based on our

    analysis. Texas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois ranked

    highly, while Rhode Island, Delaware, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and

    Nevada did poorly
  8. the best predictor of state rank was population size. Small states

    had access to fewer resources and had difficulty achieving economies of

    scale necessary for technology initiatives
  9. in terms of federal agencies, top-rated websites included those by

    the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Treasury, Department

    of Agriculture, Department of Education, and Federal Communication

    Commission. Poorly ranked agency websites included the National Security

    Council, U.S. Trade Representative, White House, U.S. Postal Service, and

    Thomas (the joint congressional website)
  10. in general, federal government websites did a better job of

    offering information and services to citizens than did state government

  11. judicial websites ranked more poorly on providing contact

    information than did executive or legislative sites
  12. there is a need for more consistent and standard designs across

    government websites.

Assessing E-Government:
The Internet, Democracy, and Service Delivery

by State and Federal Governments

There is a lot of work to be done.

The accessibility regulations cover not only the methods for creating

accessible websites, but also the purchase of the authoring tools for

creating and managing content. Stay tuned for new versions of your favorite

tools with accessibility features.

The Developer's Dilemma

There are over 20 million registered domain names, around 5 billion

pages, and another 1000 sites have come online since you started reading

this article.

The Center for Applied Special Technologies, whose href="" target="_blank" title="BOBBY Home">BOBBY

Validator allows you to check your sites for Accessibility, has a page

devoted to sites that validate for Accessibility. There are only 1284

entries as of this writing.

The code we use is changing. HTML

, XML, CSS2, all of these are getting better for us, but as we wait for the

browsers to catch up, we also must remember that not everyone has our toys,

is able-bodied, or even sees.

The range of tools for coding spans the spectrum from text editors to

visual design suites that create code as you move design elements across

your screen. Which in some cases is a magnificent collection of the finest

hardware and software available. But the best tools on the market will not

guarantee accessible code or design. This is your job.

The tools for enabling accessibility are free. That's right!! F R E E. The W3C Validator is free. The target="_blank">W3C CSS Validator is Free. The BOBBY Validator is Free.

Validation is a few keystrokes away. Your job just got a lot harder.

"I'm not using Java, javascripting, DHTML, Flash or Quicktime"

you cry! "I don't need but a handfull of tags!"

How many browsers support ?

Welcome to browser hell. There are three major visual browsers, Internet

Explorer, Netscape Navigator, and Opera. None of these allow you to use the

entire range of accessibility tags. Nor is the support for the usable ones

consistent. Platform dependancy create rendering issues. Lynx is a text

browser. Limited formatting and no visuals allowed here. Screen Readers

require a whole new mindset in respect to using tables for presenting


Testing, Testing, Testing.
You can build the cleanest

pages possible and validate them, but unless you test them in every browser

you can get your hands on and get your friends who work in different

environments to test them, you will not be sure.

Building valid websites is easy. Building compliant websites is hard. You

have to make conscious decisions to include text browsers, screen readers,

and aural information. Cascading Style Sheet support is such a mess that

zeldman 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 big

manual with chapter and verse.

If you build websites for business, sooner or later the folks whose money

you took will probably get a email from someone who wants to buy your

clients stuff, but can't because you made a decision not to make their site


These regulations point to a new era of website development.

Accessibility in website design is not a crisis of confidence, it is a

challenge to your creativity, knowlege, and ability to create a web for

everyone. Governments will do it, because it is our tax dollar. Companies

will do it because it is a bottom line issue. You will do it because you

love a challenge.

Further Reading

title="Accessibility the clock is ticking" target="_blank">Accessibility the clock is


href="" target="_blank">WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF


href="" target="_blank">Effective Communication




Web Content

Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

href="" target="_blank">W3C 'Authoring Tool Accessibility


W3C 'User


Accessibility 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.

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