The whiteboard

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 36
Digital Citation


Larry Hull

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    • (1) capable of being reached or used
    • (2) easy to meet or get along with
    • (3) easily obtained
    • (4) being at hand when needed

What does it mean to say something is accessible?

Does that mean everyone can reach it? use it? obtain it?

I like words. Yeah, I'm an engineer, but I like words, particularly the evolution of their meanings and connotations over time. Occasionally, a particular change or shift bothers me. Take, for example, the word "accessibility."

"Accessibility" as used today by Web designers and developers is shorthand for making a Web site function for people with disabilities. With this specific connotation, the word is even finding its way out of the information technology community and into ordinary life. In 2002, for example, Southwest Airlines was sued for having a Web site that wasn't usable with a screen reader.

Robert Gumson, who is blind and uses a screen reader, found that Southwest Airlines' Web site did not enable him to make a reservation. With the assistance of the disability rights group Access Now, Mr. Gumson sued the airline under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "Congress clearly intended only to encompass brick-and-mortar physical locations within Title III's realm," said Southwest in a motion to dismiss. "Internet Web sites are not physical locations; are not 'facilities' as defined in the regulations; and are not 'places of public accommodation' as defined in the ADA." The judge upheld this argument although when the ADA was passed in 1990, hardly anyone envisioned that the Web would become what it is today. In a footnote, the judge expressed surprise that the airline hadn't used "all available technologies to expand accessibility to its Web site for visually impaired customers who would be an added source of revenue." Southwest may have paid attention to the latter, as the airline subsequently made a number of changes to improve the site's accessibility.

Now, I've no problem with placing special emphasis on accommodating blind and visually impaired people, as they have the greatest need. For better or for worse, the real-world Web is a visual medium providing a highly visual display.

I do have a problem when a Web site fails to function well for people, whether they have a disability or not. People with older browsers, low bandwidth, mobility impairments, or cognitive disabilities—all these folks deserve access too. I often hear claims that these situations and nonvisual disabilities are difficult to accommodate; and although for some specific functions that may be true, in general it is not. All too often, Web designers and developers simply fail to consider these situations.

For example, they may have provided hidden "skip" links so that people using assistive technologies can skip over the repetitive navigation elements that appear on each page and go directly to the Web page content. Skip links provide much-needed assistance, but they are not for visually impaired Web users only! Some people with mobility impairments would also like to go directly to the content, but since they can't see hidden skip links must move through the repetitive navigation elements.

Accessibility in the broadest sense extends far beyond people with disabilities: People still use older browsers. People use browsers other than Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. People have low-bandwidth dial-up connections. People use alternative devices (e.g., personal digital assistants and cellular telephones).

In short, the Web should be usable by everyone. Anyone using any technology for browsing the Web should be able to visit any site, obtain the information it provides, and interact with the site as required.

People often ask whether legislation has improved Web site accessibility in the United States. I have a short answer: "only slightly." The United States has no explicit government requirement that a Web site be accessible—no more than we have a government requirement that it be usable. We do have Section 508, which applies to Federal agencies and which many people believe defines accessibility for Federal Web sites.

I hate to disillusion them, but accessibility involves much more than Section 508 compliance. Consider those hidden skip links, for example. The rule states, "A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links." Although hidden skip links satisfy the letter of this rule, for full accessibility the links must be visible.

I want to step back a minute and ask, "What is an accessible Web site?" Is it accessible to everyone? Is it accessible to a specific audience?

First, take a good look at the idea of "accessibility for everyone." It sounds like a desirable goal. What could be better? But hold on—can we really attain this objective? A reality check tells us no.

Start with one aspect of a Web site—the language it uses. To be accessible literally to everyone, the site would have to be available in a humongous number of languages. Several sources estimate that the world's languages number over 6,000, not all of which even have a written form. Just imagine the effort needed to reach everyone in his or her native tongue!

Now consider a site aimed at a specific audience, perhaps speaking just one language. Simple words and short sentences improve accessibility; clear and simple language is particularly helpful for people with cognitive impairments and for people with different reading levels. Since the average U.S. resident has an eighth-grade reading level, the question arises how to present business, technical, or scientific content. You may have no alternative to using business jargon or technical vocabulary to provide this kind of information.

Now that the writing is appropriate, the site needs to address the 10 to 20 percent of the general population who have some degree of disability. (This number is expected to increase as the population ages.) To complicate matters further, different disabilities require different kinds of accommodation: A Web site that is accessible to a person with a learning disability may not be accessible to someone who has a visual impairment.

back to top  A Radical Proposal

I have a better idea: Let's develop Web sites to be accessible first to technologies and only then to people. Instead of concentrating solely on content, let's consider first the packaging or structure; let's separate content from presentation. This focus shift actually makes it easier to build accessible Web sites: We create structured documents that follow Web standards.

Although structure and standards don't solve all the problems, their use goes a very long way toward making Web content accessible. Separating content from presentation reduces the development effort. Web pages become flexible and can be presented in ways that make the content accessible to people using alternative technologies (including many people with disabilities). Although more than one version of a page may be needed to accommodate all of the intended audience, (e.g., people with learning difficulties may need a more tailored page), flexible Web pages meet the needs of those who require the same content but need different presentations to make that content accessible. The final step needed specifically to include people with disabilities requires following the Web Accessibility guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

An accessible Web site uses standard markup language (HTML or XHTML) to provide clear content, and uses style sheets to present it. To help ensure the accommodation of the largest number of people, it follows the W3C guidelines.

In their article "Bridging the Gap" in the November-December 2003 interactions, the authors describe how they reached this same conclusion while conducting usability testing with blind users. "It is also necessary," they write (for meeting the users' needs), "to understand the users and how they work with their tools."

back to top  The Parallel Approach

In Alternative Interfaces for Accessibility, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox for April 7, 2003, Nielsen states that optimal usability for users with disabilities requires new approaches and new user interfaces. Nielsen commented, "The typical advice for making Web sites accessible is to create a single design for all users, then ensure that it complies with additional guidelines for use by people with disabilities." He continued, "The main reason for this single-design-for-multiple-audiences approach is the assumption that most companies are unable to keep two different designs up-to-date. Thus, if they optimized a separate design for users with disabilities, they'd risk it rapidly becoming out of synch with the 'main' Web site."

The W3C guidelines and the Section 508 rules agree with Nielsen's concern. The most common separate design for users with disabilities, specifically for the blind, is the text-only page. Section 508(k) has a specific rule against this: "A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a Web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes." This rule instructs us to reserve a text-only version for a last resort. It explicitly requires updates because in practice, text-only pages frequently lag well behind the corresponding graphic pages.

Nielsen, however, disagrees with creating a single design for all users. He maintains that perfect usability for users with disabilities requires separate designs optimized for each of the main access modalities. He does admit, however, that with the limited resources of our less-than-ideal world, multiple designs risk rapidly becoming out of sync.

Nielsen analyzes the interface for blind users, pointing out that the auditory presentation they tend to use differs fundamentally from the more common visual presentation style, which is two-dimensional. He proposes an interface specifically designed for auditory presentation. His proposed audio design is intended to provide optimal access to Internet content not only to blind and low-vision users but also to users without disabilities in settings where auditory access would be preferred or necessary.

At present, Web developers don't know much about interactive audio content, so we rarely see this approach. I tend to agree with Nielsen when he suggests that in the future, auditory presentation will likely make more use of hypertext than of visual layouts. I hope he's right that the resources to create optimal audio designs will appear once auditory access to Internet content becomes mainstream.

back to top  Where Does This Leave Us?

We have some very good tools, techniques, and guidelines for creating accessible Web sites. It's no use trying to make a Web site accessible to everyone, though—that's very costly and next to impossible. Furthermore, accessibility, like usability, is a relative concept that depends on understanding the needs of your audience. Separate alternative designs may be the approach of the future. For now, however, we must separate content from presentation, by providing clear content in standard HTML or XHTML, and by using style sheets to present the content to a diverse audience.

Until we've established a Web design framework that intrinsically promotes accessibility, we have the responsibility to make the best use of the tools that we have, to provide accessibility to as much of our target audience as we can.

back to top  References

1. Gumson's suit against Southwest Airlines:

2. Browser use:

3. Section 508:,

4. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines:

5. Alternative Interfaces for Accessibility, by Jakob Nielsen:

back to top  Author

Author's Bio

Larry Hull is a hearing-impaired computer engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Involved in accessibility issues since the early 70s, he spends more time than his supervisor considers suitable providing constructive criticism to Web site developers, i.e., being a pain in the anatomy when it comes to Section 508 compliance. In his day job, Larry surfs the Web looking for emerging technologies that can be adapted to support NASA's mission.

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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