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Web Accessibility

Creating non-discriminatory, user-friendly Websites

Web accessibility is a central aspect of successful Website design. It refers to the degree to which people who want to use a Website can actually do so, easily and effectively. However for users with disabilities, the Internet may often be a source of frustration; a hidden type of “unintentional” discrimination. Unintentional because the designers of websites frequently are unaware of the limitations of a broad range of potential users: those with vision, hearing, physical, cognitive or other disabilities. These disabilities may render many websites unusable due to design flaws or omissions. Accessibility touches on many topics, including technical standards, design style, production processes and managerial responsibilities. While it most directly impacts the user who is impaired, web access is vitally important for everyone involved in the design, maintenance and management of websites.

To maximize the effectiveness of website advertising or usability, website creators need to keep in mind the various forms of limitations within the broader categories of vision, hearing, cognitive and other impairments. For example, when shopping at a large retail outlet (particularly at the Holiday Season) a person with red/green color blindness may find online shopping frustrating. This is due to banners and product headings done in red, green and white text which may become unreadable. At best, the colors will become gray; which is a rather unappealing lead in retail sales, and white text virtually disappears. This renders the shopping experience unpleasant for the user and less profitable for the retailer which is certainly not what was intended when the site was created. In order to improve the quality and effectiveness of website design, content managers and designers need to become educated concerning the various forms of impairments, and what steps they can take to make their sites appeal to the broadest range of users. A good place to begin is by consulting the World Wide Web Consortium where the various forms of user impairments are both discussed and alternatives for improving design usability are discussed. This website provides the most current information to designers and content managers concerning web access issues and solutions.

While some designers may be concerned about the effects of adopting the guidelines upon the overall appeal of the site, conforming to the recommended standards will not make websites boring and uninteresting. Designers may still effectively employ color, text, sound, and video while providing alternatives in the form of Applets, Braille, Voice-overs, Speech Synthesis, Plain Text and other options to prospective users with disabilities. This site has been created in compliance with the standards proposed by the WWW Consortium and is a good example of how to use the various methods described in the guidelines.

In order to address the various issues involved in making websites effective for users with disabilities, this site has been broken down into the following sections:


Introduction

This section of the website has been broken up into five categories relating to types of disabilities. Under each category you will find information on how you can greater benefit through accessibility while navigating this site with a particular disability.

This web site is designed using the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG1.0) to develop a website that is accessible by all.

Visual Disabilities

As mentioned in the previous section, there are a variety of visual impairments that can be addressed in site designing to make them more effective for those with these difficulties. Visual Disabilities can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Color Blindness
  • Blindness
  • Limited Vision

Each of these groups comprises a wide-variety of limitations that may be addressed in relatively simple ways. It is wisest to adapt site design for the worst case scenarios, as all others in that group will experience the benefit.

For example, sufferers of the most severely limited form of color blindness, monochromacy, perceive the world in various hues of gray, ranging from black to very light gray; similar to a black and white movie. Adapting a design to address this degree of difficulty will have benefits for those suffering from milder forms of color blindness as well. A simple search of large Internet retailers such as Sears, JCPenny, Walmart and other U.S. site frequently employ color as a major part of their advertising schemes. A simple way for these retailers to create a readable banner is to use outlined block letters, for example a banner can be made more readable by simply outlining the white letters in black.

Strongly contrasting colors have been used in the design of this site so that those with color related vision impairments may distinguish the different sections of the page. In addition, this site is designed so that it does not rely on color cues for navigation or information access. Other methods of site design that can be employed include Cascading style sheets, which are adaptable to both Braille and audible speech presentations as well.

For the blind, this website has used the Alt Tag on non-accessible objects to allow third party software such as screen readers and Braille Displays access to descriptions of the content of the images. Alt Tag means “alternative content” and are contained in the Image coding element. The tags provide a description for screen readers and text browsers to read using voice codes instead of source codes for images. These are particularly useful for those websites that are designed for retail. However, other websites, such as University studies and courses would significantly increase their accessibility by employing these codes. Braille Displays are devices attached to a computer that interpret visual information into a high-quality Braille readout. This enables those with no vision to “read” the visual information contained on the screen. Some displays have on board memory which permits the storage and retrieval of Electronic Braille information. Braille displays enable the user to perform a number of reading intensive tasks. In addition, in the United States Alt Tags and Braille Displays comply with the Handicap accessibility statutes. Device independence allows the user to navigate the site with the use of a keyboard, mouse, or other assistive devices such as custom input devices.

For those with limited vision, there are a few other options including resizing through the monitor settings and text only displays, as well as audible text, Braille and the strongly contrasting colors employed for those with color related limitations. Visually impaired people can also use the same low vision aids for viewing a computer screen as they do for regular reading activities. Special software has been developed to either display computer data in large print if the monitor display options are insufficient for an individual’s needs, or read the material aloud in a synthetic voice. Voice interactive displays that allow the user to ask or to respond to questions are extremely helpful to this group of users. The coding needed for the special devices are easy to use and do not detract from the visual appeal of a website to those users with no impairments. By employing these codes, visually impaired users are able to perform the same tasks as non-impaired users, enhancing the effectiveness of any website.

Hearing Disabilities

Initially, website designers operated upon the assumption that Internet accessibility for those with hearing impairments was a non-issue. This website, for example, employs no audio but in the instance of a both hearing and vision loss the website is still accessible through refreshable Braille displays. Websites were, and to a large extent remain, text-based mediums. So, although those with hearing loss vary in the degree of their impairment in much the same way that those with vision losses do, the use of text-based information conveyance rendered this disability a moot issue. However, with the development and integration of audio and video multimedia, this assumption has not matured with the pace of the medium. Simply put, for those with any significant degree of hearing loss, video presentations combining both sight and sound are not at all useful. Particularly for those sites that employ webinars and multimedia teaching, such as University websites, there is a lack of attention to the important details of sound equivalencies for non-hearing users which often make them inaccessible to the hearing impaired.

In the October 25, 2006 Wall Street Journal there was a report on this growing problem. In that article by Andrew Levallee the issue of television and movie video streaming on the Internet was discussed. For regular television viewers, modern displays include closed captioning as required by U. S. law. When the same media is transferred via the internet this portion has been left out. While the FCC rules that govern accessibility do not yet apply to the Internet, except for Federal websites, a strong movement is afoot to require the same sort of compliance for Internet sites. It is, therefore, a very wise move for website designers to think and act proactively when coding a site design employing audio portions. Here are some suggested strategies for web designers.

  1. Gather requirements to understand deaf and hearing-impaired people’s needs, abilities and preferences before designing.
  2. Consult end-users and ask “does this adequately convey the meaning of the audible text?”
  3. Apply text equivalents for both pre-load and real-time video when designing the system.

Two contents are equivalent when both fulfill essentially the same function or purpose in presentation. HTML provides a text equivalent for non-text elements including graphical representations of text, images and animations, applets and programmable objects, ASCII art, and scripts. Some media formats (e.g. QuickTime, SAMI and SMIL) allow captions and video descriptions to be added to a multimedia clip and more multimedia creation software systems are including these components.

Providing equivalent information for inaccessible content is the primary way designers can make sites accessible to people with impairments. Text equivalents should be written so that they convey all essential content, although they need not always be a verbatim script of the audible text. The purpose of captioning is to convey the meaning of the audio, and may be a complete translation in certain instances (educational for example) where a complete transcript is desirable. Captions should include speech as well as other sounds in the environment that help viewers understand what is going on. This would include such things as a text prompt similar to this: (White Christmas playing in background) and other devices to allow the non-hearing to remain informed concerning the environment as well as the speech involved in a presentation.

The design of closed captioning for a website should keep in mind the pace of the audible text as opposed to the speed with which the human eye can read the same text. In many cases, a more succinct interpretation of the meaning and intent of the audio are more appropriate. In order to be truly up-to-date, site designs need to incorporate multimedia, and with the multimedia, they must address accessibility for those who cannot hear the audio portions.

Physical Disabilities

More than 14 million Americans under age 64 have a physical disability, according to the 2005 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Physical (motor) impairments include physical weakness, poor muscular control (e.g. paralysis, involuntary movements, and lack of coordination ), decreased sensation, joint stiffness, or missing limbs. Some physical disabilities may include pain such as those related to arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses that impede movement. These conditions affect the hands and arms as well as other parts of the body. In designing a website to be more accessible for those with physical disabilities it is important to make the site as easy to navigate as possible. Devices to assist those with motor difficulties include:

  • Specialized Mouse using roller ball technology or a flat pad form.
  • A keyboard with a layout of keys that matches range of hand motion
  • Pointing Devices held in the mouth that work on an optical connection.
  • Voice-Recognition Software installed on the user’s computer system.
  • An Eye-Gaze System

These devices are incorporated into the user’s computer system and do not require special coding by a website designer. In order to make a website more accessible for those with physical disabilities, the key is in design. A well designed website would have clear, easily navigable links including large icons and linked large text for navigation. These enhance the usability of any site for those with physical limitations.

A good rule of thumb is for a designer to ask a person with a physical disability to examine the intended site design. Or a designer can simulate the use of a mouth-held pointer but using a laser pointer held in the mouth and trying to “highlight” icons and text intended for site navigation. By seeking this sort of input before and during a site’s development the designer will avoid costly mistakes, particularly for sites intended for retail and educationally related marketing.

Cognitive Disabilities

There are many types of cognitive and learning impairments. It is easier to break these down into smaller segments for clarity. On this website, symbols and pictures and clear and easy to understand language is used wherever possible. Consistent Navigation and page layout are a key element of design which allows access to people with cognitive disabilities.

Dyslexia and reading impairments

Dyslexia is a learning disability where an individual has difficulty reading words due to a problem in visual comprehension. A person with this condition will often reverse or transpose letters and symbols such as numbers. This makes it difficult to read text-based media on a webpage. Studies have shown that larger type, simpler words and justification of paragraphs make it easier for a person with dyslexia and reading comprehension difficulties to read a page. Individuals with this impairment will also benefit from voice-overs and clear audio. Other groups that benefit from this include those with memory loss and memory retention disabilities, those suffering from some form of mental disability such as Down’s syndrome, and those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Individuals with ADD may have difficulty focusing on information, things that help with this include turning off animations, blinking and/ or flashing objects and text. In addition, a consistent navigational structure is key for these users.

Intellectual impairments and Mental Health impairments

Individuals with intelligence disabilities may learn more slowly, or have difficulty understanding complex concepts. Down Syndrome is one among many different causes of intellectual disabilities. Individuals with mental health disabilities may have difficulty focusing on information on a Web site, or difficulty with blurred vision or hand tremors due to side effects from medications. As previously mentioned, persons with these types of impairments benefit from quality audio and voice-overs, but they also benefit from high quality graphics that are not too busy. And of course, the simpler the language is the easier it is to comprehend. Design should focus on short paragraphs and pages that contain only one or two paragraphs per page.

Other Disabilities

Some individuals with seizure disorders, including people with reflex epilepsy and photosensitive epilepsy, are triggered by visual flickering, repetitive sounds, flashing lights, video games, or audio signals at a certain frequency. Internet Explorer has placed a warning on it’s Games page, indicating that some of the games may trigger these types of reactions. Many retailers and educational/informational sites should include a similar warning. To avoid causing difficulties the designer could focus on avoiding flickering, blinking and flashing objects on a webpage. Also, attention needs to be given to the audio portions, avoiding those ranges that may trigger seizures. This website had taken care to avoid as many of these triggers as possible. The U. S. National Epilepsy Foundation is an excellent resource for information regarding web design as is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0.

When designing a website, a site developer will have to consider a broad range of components. Included among those should be the ability of the site to appeal to the broadest range of users. The WCA Guidelines offer designers easy access to the information they may need for designing a non-discriminatory site. In the information-age, no designer should overlook the importance of being inclusive of those suffering from any sort of disability.

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