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Web Sites Still Not Compliant With Accessibility Law

Web Sites Still Not Compliant With Accessibility Law

More than a year after the deadline for federal Web sites to meet accessibility standards required by law, nearly 87 percent of sites are still not fully compliant, according to a recent study funded by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. To help its federal clients meet those standards and better serve people with disabilities, the University of Dayton Research Institute recruited Sarah Swierenga, a human factors expert who believes accessibility is more than just a legal matter.

"Making Web sites accessible to all users, regardless of disability, is becoming a hot issue,” said Swierenga, who joined UD in May in the dual role of researcher and educator. "Fifty-four million Americans — or about 20 percent — have at least one significant disability, as do over 500 million people worldwide. And as the Internet becomes an increasingly common means of communication for both personal and business purposes, designing products for a wide audience — including disabled users — is critical.”

Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act required all federal Web sites to meet accessibility standards as of June 25, 2001. Those standards are designed to facilitate Internet access for people with disabilities — including low vision or blindness, deafness and cognitive impairments — many of whom use assistive software. Of the 148 sites studied, however, only 13.5 were fully compliant, PriceWaterhouseCoopers reported.

Because 90 percent of UDRI’s contract dollars come from federal agencies, the institute recruited Swierenga in part to help those clients meet accessibility standards. But federal Web sites represent only a fraction of the countless business and service sites on the Internet, said Swierenga, who is spearheading a research-based campaign to educate and encourage all consumer-oriented Web designers to make their sites accessible to people with disabilities.

"Accessibility makes good business sense,” she said. "Companies are beginning to recognize the rapidly growing market segment of disabled and older consumers.

"For me, the issue goes beyond reasons of legality or profit. As technology moves forward, I believe we have a moral obligation to make sure no one is left behind. Accessibility is simply the right way to go.”

Before joining UD, Swierenga worked for nearly 10 years as a human factors engineer in the LexisNexis design and usability group, where she led a yearlong corporate accessibility compliance initiative. She also co-authored Constructing Accessible Web Sites (Glasshaus 2002) and created a half-day training program on implementing Web accessibility compliance programs.

At UD, Swierenga has completed her first study on the issues blind users face when trying to navigate the Net and is in the process of procuring funding for a second, expanded study.

"My long-term goal is to address a variety of disabilities and the issues people with those disabilities face when trying to search and retrieve information from the Web,” Swierenga said. "But I’m focusing my early research at UD on issues blind users face because that particular population encounters the biggest challenges to Web use. Imagine a nondisabled person trying to search a Web site with no mouse and the computer monitor turned off.”

Consumers who are blind have access to a variety of screen-reading and other software that read aloud in electronic "voice” the text displayed on a computer monitor. While good for word processing programs, they can’t read graphics or other images — making them virtually useless on a Web site.

Products designed to help consumers with disabilities navigate the Web are only useful if a site is designed for accessibility, Swierenga said. "The key is to think in terms of accessibility during design stages. Companies can address the issue most cost-effectively by incorporating it into technology planning, development and maintenance processes. Any expense incurred is worthwhile because of the significant market potential.”

To make a site accessible to someone who is blind, the site must include alternative text that describes each image and icon and can be picked up by a screen reader, Swierenga said. Text captioning should be included for people who can’t hear computer prompts such as beeps or spoken messages. For those with cognitive impairments, information should be presented in small, discrete units without blinking-type distractions on the page. Pages requiring a timed response should also include a prompt to alert the user and some type of delay button to give the user sufficient time to complete a task.

"IBM’s corporate site is a good example of a site that is accessible, but sites such as Amazon.com, eBay.com, Yahoo.com and Google.com pose significant problems for disabled consumers because of missing alternative text on images, among other reasons,” she said.

Swierenga is also working with UDRI to create a new and accessible Web site for the institute to be launched in the near future. In the classroom, she is incorporating elements of Web accessibility for the first time into "Human-Computer Interaction,” an existing graduate-level psychology course. By looking at design from a user-centered perspective rather than a system-centered perspective, students will learn how to design interfaces that provide "outstanding ease of use,” she said.

November 12, 2002

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