Recommended standards make the web more accessible

The Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, has given people access to all kinds of information. Seems like web graphics get flashier and become a bigger part of a web site's presentation every day. It's a tool that makes it easy and enjoyable to surf from page to page to find information.Now imagine if you couldn't even see the graphics, the links, the text, or anything else.

08/01/1998


The Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, has given people access to all kinds of information. Seems like web graphics get flashier and become a bigger part of a web site's presentation every day. It's a tool that makes it easy and enjoyable to surf from page to page to find information.

Now imagine if you couldn't even see the graphics, the links, the text, or anything else. Many people probably aren't aware that the blind and visually impaired can and do use the World Wide Web. Using screen readers or special audio browsers, web information is converted to sound by speech synthesizers or to Braille.

Screen readers typically use a text-based web browser like Lynx. Because of the way text-based browsers work, today's web page design practices make it harder for visually impaired web surfers to get around. Designers must take special care to ensure that screen readers recognize links. The common practice of using graphic images, whether buttons or pictures, as links won't work in text-based browsers without alternate descriptive text in the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) code. Text-based browsers also don't recognize HTML tables. Without proper formatting, links placed in rows and columns of a table could end up on one long, jumbled line and be indistinguishable by a screen reader.

Making web sites accessible to the visually impaired could become more than just a noble act. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 outlines the requirement for the accessibility and usability of telecommunications hardware for individuals with disabilities. The act primarily targets hardware and equipment, but many in the industry believe the act could be interpreted to apply to web information in general and specifically to web sites that support telecommunications equipment.

Several sites on the web provide guidelines for making pages more accessible to the visually impaired. The World Wide Web Consortium, Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI), and All Things Web sites are just a few sites that provide information on creating accessible web pages. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) provides its "Bobby" utility for checking the accessibility of pages on the web. Bobby analyzes a web page then displays and points out locations on a page where potential problems lie, with full descriptions of potential problems listed at the bottom of the page. Submitted pages are also rated on a scale of one-to-four stars. Pages earning four stars are eligible to display the "Bobby Approved" seal.

Tools for accessibility

Early versions of the Hypertext Markup Language used to write web pages combined with both content and layout information in the same file. Specifics about the display of text, such as text size and fonts were mixed together. While newer versions of web browsers will still read HTML written this way, HTML is now considered more for organizing content and not for formatting visual presentation. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) introduced the cascading style sheets specification (CSS1) to handle visual presentation. Cascading style sheets are separate files from HTML-based content files that contain formatting information. While taking some initial effort to set up, cascading style sheets make web pages more customizable and give web developers more control over page display. For example, a web site could have different style sheets different browsers, allowing a developer to control the exact appearance of a page in different browsers.

W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative looked at how to make web pages more accessible to people with disabilities. Web Access Initiative's Page Authoring Accessibility Guidelines are part of the new HTML 4.0 and CSS2 recommendations. CSS2 takes style sheets beyond the visual formatting of CSS1 by including new options for aural presentation for audio browsers and adding text formatting options that make pages easier for screen readers to navigate. Once fully implemented, browsers that support CSS2 will be able to format for aural presentation of information as well as the visual presentation. Style sheets will be able to control such properties as rate of speech and speech pitch.


Author Information

Matt Bellm, Internet Editor mbellm@cahners.com


Web Sites for Accessibility Information

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative -

Equal Access to Software and Information -

All Things Web - Compatibility and Accessibility -

Center for Applied Special Technology Bobby Web Page Accessibility Analyzer -

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 Accessibility Guidelines -



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