Technology

Barrier-Free IT

Making state and local government Web sites accessible to people with disabilities is less a matter of dollars than sensitivity.
by | March 2005

One evening in February, local Web developers gathered at a restaurant in downtown Austin, Texas, to kick off a competition known as the Accessibility Internet Rally. Its goal is to match technology experts from the public and private sectors with nonprofit agencies that need help upgrading their Web site. Teams have 30 days to design Web improvements and put them into practice. They are judged primarily on the extent to which the content is accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

Among the participants was Robin Hart, a research analyst for the city's Web site. While she and several co-workers like lending a hand to a worthy cause (and the possibility of being recognized at an awards banquet when the contest wraps up later this month), the main reason for entering is a practical one: It gives Hart and other city employees an opportunity to learn more about how to make Austin's own Web site more accessible. Before the event, they must take a low-cost training course on accessibility tools and techniques from Knowbility, the company that sponsors the rally.

In recent years, officials in Austin have made disabled access to their Web site--Austin City Connection--a priority, and employees have responded accordingly. But around the country, whether disabled residents can take advantage of the information and services their city, county and state governments offer on the Internet is definitely hit or miss. Designing sites that can be easily navigated by everyone doesn't take a lot in the way of technical or financial resources. The problem is that few governments recognize the need and feel compelled to address it.

One reason accessibility to government Web sites is so uneven may stem from a lack of awareness about the size of the disabled population. Nearly 53 million people--one-fifth of all Americans--have some type of disability, according to the 2000 Census. The visually impaired or blind are the most obviously disadvantaged when it comes to viewing words on a computer monitor. But people who are deaf, colorblind or have neurological problems may also be limited in their use of the Web without a combination of special programming and assistive technology. As the population ages, people will face even more functional limitations. By 2008, 25 percent of the population will be 55 or older. Many of them are likely to develop difficulty using a mouse, hearing an online video presentation or reading small print onscreen.

Another reason states and localities have been slow to make their sites accessible is that they generally aren't required to do it. When the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1986, Congress set non- binding technology accessibility guidelines for the federal government under a provision called Section 508. In 1998, the standards became binding and enforceable. The law mandates that electronic and information technology developed, maintained or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.

State and local governments (as well as private companies) do not fall under those rules unless they use federal funds to build their Web sites. That's often the case for state health and labor departments. But in other agencies, it is up to chief executives, department heads or Americans with Disabilities Act coordinators to champion the cause of accessibility.

Recent e-government studies by Brown University document wide variation in accessibility to Web pages among state and local governments. For the past two years, researchers have evaluated compliance with standards recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). They tested several dozen Web sites maintained by each jurisdiction, using automated software that measures the number of errors of disability access. In 2004, North Dakota, Kansas, Texas and New Hampshire earned the highest accessibility ratings among states. Cincinnati, San Diego, Tampa, Denver and Buffalo topped the list for cities.

Along with the leaders, the Brown study also identified many laggards. Only 37 percent of state sites complied with the accessibility standards for text, audio and video recommended by W3C. States are "at different levels," agrees Deborah Buck, executive director of the Association of Assistive Technology Act programs. "A number of states are at the development stage." Which is one way of saying they haven't gotten very far. The Brown study also found that more than one-third of major U.S. cities had no Web sites accessible to the disabled at all.

Designing for the disabled entails looking at computer code in a completely different way. For instance, Web pages typically have toolbars along the top and information along the left side of the screen to help users navigate the site. Unless a programmer puts in what's called a "skip to content" link, a screen reader that "talks" to blind users will start reading from the top left corner.

That means that a blind person listening to yahoo.com's home page being read would hear--if it weren't coded properly--"Yahoo!, My Yahoo!, Mail, Yahoo! News, Welcome, Sign Out, My Account," when all she wanted to do was read the current news page. "How would you like to do that?" asks Mike Roiland, the Web site coordinator for Pinellas County, Florida. "You want to read something in Chapter 5 and you have to read the Table of Contents and up through Chapter 4 before you get to it." To illustrate his point, Roiland has his programmers sit down at a computer without a mouse or a monitor and then he says, "Okay, navigate through the site."

Screen readers for the blind can't make sense of boldface or underlining. But programmers can put in "header coding," which uses numbers to create a hierarchy so screen readers can figure out what material is most important. Pop-up ads and .pdf files, which present sighted people with images, charts and pictures, are jumbled garbage to a screen reader, unless special coding is inserted to explain the visuals in text form. Likewise, sites that stream audio need captions for the deaf.

People who have trouble using their hands don't use a mouse but "hot keys,"--combinations of keys that get them where they want to go onscreen--something programmers need to take into account. People with dyslexia who come upon a cluttered Web page can be bombarded with too much information and may not be able to track what they see on the page. "Flash"--a lot of movement or blinking images on the screen--can cause epileptic seizures. The detailed Section 508 standards deal with all these problems and many more.

TAKING THE INITIATIVE

Governments that score high on accessibility generally have some combination of guidelines, good oversight, and education and awareness training for employees who work with Web sites.

Kansas has a statewide initiative to make sure agencies comply with Web accessibility guidelines. An advocacy group for the disabled got the state's ear by pushing for state compliance with Section 508 standards. The state's ADA coordinator took on the challenge and formed a committee to get technology workers to adhere to standards on a structured basis.

Since 2001, when the standards were implemented, they have become widely adopted. Training has been offered to help people learn about them. And the state created a resource center for state personnel to review new information and download guidelines. "It's been a constant struggle," says DiAnna Wages, director of creative services for accessKansas, the state's portal, "but it's been really good."

Texas also discovered that a lack of awareness of the issues was hampering the drive toward compliance with accessibility standards. "We found people were taking our draft policy for accessibility and putting it up on their Web site without understanding what they needed to do to comply," says Jerry Johnson, senior policy analyst with the Strategic Initiatives Division of the Department of Information Resources. "We realized we needed to expand educational opportunities to help them understand what each of these mean."

Most programmers aren't used to thinking about the special needs of some of the users of their technology. "When someone writes a software package, it doesn't even cross their minds," says Larry Wayland, a blind technology specialist in Arkansas who sued the state for violating its own policies on buying only accessible technology. "No one's going around saying, 'We're not going to develop products for blind people.' It's not a deliberate thing, but it's a serious thing and it's getting more serious."

Governments that do the work up-front to serve those with disabilities are finding some unexpected benefits. In addition to making sites easier to maintain and update, simple, clean programming can increase accessibility for many different constituencies, notes Buck, of the assistive technology association. Programs written with text-only options, for example, enable fast downloading of Web-based information to users of cell phones or personal digital assistants.

Even those governments currently doing a good job on accessibility know they cannot rest on their laurels. With the rapid changes that occur in technology, keeping up on accessibility is no easy task. Kansas tries to make sure its standards stay "based in reality," Wages says. "One of our roles is foresight."

In Austin, where nearly 70 percent of the city's Web offerings are W3C compliant, Hart helps ensure that no new site is created without passing an audit using a text reader. "It doesn't take all that much more time," she says. "It's planning ahead to make sure it's accessible when you're finished."

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