Web Techniques Magazine
July 1997
Volume 2, Issue 7

Crippled by the Web

Last month, I mentioned the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Having just returned from the Sixth International World Wide Web Conference, I simply stated "WAI is a good thing; just do it." As Lincoln Stein notes in this month's "Webmaster's Domain," the theme for that conference was "Everyone, Everything, Connected." To kick off the conference, the World Wide Web Consortium, better known as W3C, announced a new initiative that encourages Web-page developers to create pages that are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. To accomplish this, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) proposes to establish an International Program Office (IPO) responsible for conducting research and development, creating guidelines, developing protocols and technologies, and educating the industry. W3C will provide staff and funding for the IPO, which also carries the endorsement of the White House.

The IPO will focus initially on protocols and data formats aimed at making the Web itself more accessible. For example, W3C plans to develop descriptive video and captioning enhancements to HTML and the new eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Also in the works are plans to add extensions to cascading style sheets to support speech output, and the negotiation of user-agent features for HTTP and PEP.

The rest is up to developers of both Web tools and Web sites. For example, <alt> tag information is often used to describe or label images for users of character-based browsers. Many existing technologies for the visually impaired, including speech synthesis and refreshable Braille displays, also rely on text-based representations. Of course, site developers (including those at WebTechniques.com) should diligently include <alt> tag information for graphics. However, tool vendors could better support the content creators by developing graphics tools that automatically generate meta-information for images. In addition, sound-file formats should include provisions for closed captioning and other cues for audio events that would allow those with hearing impairments to experience the sound. The real must-have, of course, is browser presentation options to support alternative forms of navigation.

In listening to the parade of notable conference speakers, it struck me as odd that WAI was pitched defensively, as if some special-interest lobby group had won support and the mission for the W3C was to explain why it's also good for the rest of us. Thomas Kalil, senior director of the National Economic Council, likened the WAI to wheelchair access on sidewalks. Kalil made the point that people in wheelchairs are not the only ones to benefit from access for the disabled legislation. Mothers with strollers, and even rollerbladers, benefit from sidewalk ramps. Maybe Kalil believes that browser companies will respond with "We'd like to add support, but market share is too small to justify the cost." Unfortunately, developers get the message that the "greater good" is not good enough. Are we so callous that we must find something in it for ourselves before we'll buy into yet another "socially correct" ideal?

The fact is, roughly 15 percent of the population can't use a computer that hasn't been modified in some way. Some of these people were at the conference to see how they would be affected by new standards. They brought with them horror stories like the plight of one young blind man who accessed his computer using a refreshable Braille display attached to his PC. When his company began to focus on the Web, the man was told that the Web is a visually oriented environment and that he no longer possessed the proper skills to perform his job.

Yes, WAI will result in better-designed Web sites and more robust tools. Yes, WAI will allow even those with character-based browsers like Lynx to view more Web sites. But, these are added benefits. The point is that those affected don't come with virtual stories; they are real. And extending a helping hand is never something we do because we're lured into it-we do it because we can.

Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd
editor in chief

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Last modified: 2/5/97