Accessibility: the Politics of Design

A little over a year ago I wrote an article here on the upcoming U.S. Accessibility Regulations for the web. Specifically on Section 508 of the WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF 1998, which required all United States Federal Agencies with websites to make those sites accessible to individuals with disabilities, within 24 months of enacting of this law.

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The 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 too.

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 impairments.

“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 opened 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 dots.

This is Good News. Some of you are currently unemployed. The implosion of the pure play websites, with the arrival of these regulations, has presented a golden opportunity for new jobs. A lot of new jobs. Before sending out those resumes, let’s see what work the government has done.

Uncle Sam Needs You#section2

The regulations gave the enforcement authority to the Department Of Justice. On April 2, 1999, the Attorney General 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 20,000 websites. 3,028 Web pages were surveyed.

This effort on the part of the DOJ, although comprising only a small sample, represented 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 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.

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 them.

“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.

Adobe is one of the major providers of tools that are used daily across the world to build websites. Adobe’s Portable Document Format is a flourishing document format that gives 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 controversial 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, formatting, etc.

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 italics]

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 Governments. Here 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 websites
  • 4) 22 percent of government websites offer at least one online service
  • 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 websites
  • 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#section3

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 Developers’ Dilemma#section4

There are over 20 million registered domain names, around five billion pages, and another 1000 sites have come online since you started reading this article.

The Center for Applied Special Technologies, whose 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 4.01, 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 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, DHTML, Flash or Quicktime!” you cry. “I don’t need but a handfull of tags!”

POP QUIZ!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 dependancies 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 content.

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 ALA has half a dozen 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 email from someone who wants to buy your client’s stuff, but can’t because you made a decision not to make their site accessible.

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
Workforce Investment Act of 1998
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
W3C Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines
W3C User Agent Accessibility Guidelines
Accessibility: more than the right thing to do

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