((((((((((((((((( WEBREFERENCE UPDATE NEWSLETTER ))))))))))))))))) June 21, 2001
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This week we explore accessibility for Web sites. With a new accessibility law taking effect today, we talked to three leaders in their respective fields, Doug Isenberg (Net law), Jeffrey Zeldman (Web design), and Jakob Nielsen (Usability). While it's now against the law to make .gov Web sites inaccessible, these experts say it's also a good idea for any Web site.
New this week on WebReference.com and the Web:
1. FEATURED ARTICLE: Accessible Sites
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Effective today (June 21, 2001) section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998) requires new or modified government Web sites to comply with its accessibility standards. These rules are designed to make information more accessible for people with disabilities, which number 54 million in the US alone.
Section 508 uses the government procurement process to ensure that technology acquired by the federal government is accessible to the disabled. Sites that are found to not comply could face legal action.
"The new standards could add more than $1 billion a year - about 3 percent - to the $38 billion the federal government now spends annually on information technology, the Access Board estimates. The benefit is expected to include great employment among disabled people, a 5 to 10 percent increase in productivity among federal workers with disabilities and a 'spillover of technology' that will boost employment and productivity outside the federal government." - Daniel W. Uhlfelder
To get some perspective on the new law we talked to three leaders in the legal, design, and usability fields: Doug Isenberg, Jeffrey Zeldman, and Jakob Nielsen. First Doug Isenberg, an attorney and the founder of GigaLaw.com (http://www.GigaLaw.com), a Web site that provides legal information about Internet issues.
>WR: Summarize section 508 as it applies to Web sites?
>DI: The new federal standards require, among other things, that the Web sites of federal agencies be made accessible to people with physical disabilities. The standards were developed in response to the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1998, a law that applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain or use certain kinds of technology, including computers, software and electronic office equipment.
As we all know, the World Wide Web is by its very nature a visual medium. Although graphical user interfaces on many Web sites make them easy to use for most people, these same features make many Web sites inaccessible to some people with physical disabilities such as visual impairments. "Screen-reading" software used by the blind makes Web sites more accessible, but the software doesn't work well on sites that don't include certain elements, such as "alt" tags for images.
The new standards issued by the Access Board ( http://www.access-board.gov ), an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, require the use of text equivalents for every non-text element, so the screen-reading software will work as intended. The standards also require such things as: documents must be readable without style sheets; redundant text links must be provided for each active region of a server-side image map; frames must have text titles that make them easier to navigate; alerts must be included to notify users of timed responses; and more.
The complete list of accessibility requirements for covered web sites is available at http://www.section508.gov/final_text.html#Web
See also the article on GigaLaw.com, "An Overview of Federal Guidelines for Making Web Sites Accessible to the Disabled," http://www.gigalaw.com/articles/2001/uhlfelder-2001-03-p1.html
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>WR: Does it only affect .gov Web sites?
>DI: The standards apply to "Federal agencies [that] develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology." The standards also require that "individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities."
So, the standards apply to all federal agency Web sites; presumably, this includes sites such as the Social Security Administration, NASA, the Patent and Trademark Office, and numerous others.
Whether a particular Web site ending with the top-level domain ".gov" is required to comply with the standards depends on what governmental entity is operating at a particular domain name. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for handling all registration procedures for ".gov". Because the GSA may grant a special request to an entity to register in the ".gov" top-level domain, not all ".gov" Web sites are necessarily federal agencies and a Web site with a ".gov" address may or may not be required to comply.
>WR: What about private-sector Web sites?
>DI: Generally, the standards do not apply to the private sector. In other words, popular Web sites such as WebReference.com, GigaLaw.com, eBay and Yahoo are not affected by the new standards and are not required to redesign their sites to make them accessible to the disabled.
However, the private sector certainly may be affected by these standards, particularly those people and companies involved in the process of creating Web content for federal agencies. Because federal agencies must comply with the standards, they may, for example, outsource Web development work only to designers that agree to create sites compatible with the accessibility standards.
Also, although private Web sites are not required to comply with the accessibility standards, they really have an incentive to do so: By creating Web sites that are accessible to the disabled, companies will reach a potentially larger audience than if they did not do so. See the article on GigaLaw.com, "The Importance of Web Access for the Disabled," http://www.gigalaw.com/articles/2001/isenberg-2001-02-p1.html
>WR: Are there any exceptions to the standards?
>DI: Yes. According to a FAQ published by the Access Board: "A Federal agency does not have to comply with the technology accessibility standards if it would impose an undue burden to do so. This is consistent with language used in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other civil rights legislation, where the term 'undue burden' has been defined as 'significant difficulty or expense.' However, the agency must explain why meeting the standards would pose an undue burden for a given procurement action, and must still provide people with disabilities access to the information or data that is affected."
Also, the standards do not apply if doing so would "require a fundamental alteration in the nature of a product or its components."
>WR: How do the new standards relate to the Americans with Disabilities Act?
>DI: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a 1990 U.S. law that prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability in terms of hiring, discharge and other terms and conditions of employment. The ADA also requires employers to take steps to ensure that the public has access to their goods or services, such as by installing wheelchair ramps. See the article on GigaLaw.com, "What Internet Companies Must Know about the Americans with Disabilities Act," http://www.gigalaw.com/articles/towns-2000-12-p1.html
In a 1999 lawsuit, the National Federation of the Blind sued America Online, alleging that AOL's software was inaccessible to the blind and in violation of the ADA. Ultimately, the lawsuit was settled, leaving unresolved the question of whether the ADA's public accommodation requirement compels employers to make their Web sites accessible, too.
Now, the new accessibility standards provide a great framework for making Web sites accessible. Although compliance with the standards is neither required by the ADA nor a guarantee that a Web site is not violating the ADA, doing so may be a good way to avoid some legal challenges.
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>WR: We asked Jeffrey Zeldman, tireless promoter of Web Standards ( >http://www.webstandards.org ) and clean Web design about what he's doing to publicize accessibility.
>JZ: I'm doing two things:
1.) As a designer and business owner, I'm including accessibility in my proposals, correspondence, and meetings, making it part of the business plan for every site my company designs, and using mandated accessibility as a hook to sell clients on standards compliance, since the two are so closely related.
2.) As a publisher and writer, I'm running as many *good* accessibility stories as possible at A List Apart ( http://www.alistapart.com/ ), my site for Web developers - and harping on the issue of accessibility in the articles I write for PDN, Macworld, and Adobe. Yet another accessibility article - this one on accessible multimedia - will run in this Friday's ALA.
>WR: And Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group (http://www.nngroup.com/):
>JN: I know that most people approach accessibility from a legalistic and formal perspective and only do what the regulations tell them to do. But I have always been advocating accessibility and I have a chapter on designing for users with disabilities in my book "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity". One of the very few Web design books to take this topic sufficiently seriously *before* the introduction of regulations. Also, I believe that most of the characteristics of good Web design derive from simplicity and help both disabled users and non-disabled users alike.
The regulations will probably serve as a wake-up call to some people, but I am taking a longer-term perspective. I don't think regulations are the way to go, except for placing the issue on the agenda. With respect to actual design and making Web sites accessible, it is more important to study human behavior and design for the way users with disabilities actually behave. This is mainly unknown because these users have been ignored by the mainstream Internet industry until now.
To remedy the situation, I am conducting a big usability study of users with a variety of disabilities: blind users, low-vision users, and users with motor disabilities (cannot use a mouse), where we are looking at the user experience from the human angle: what does it mean to users with disabilities when they attempt to use different types of Web sites. We are obviously including some Federal government Web sites, and we are actually planning to go to Washington, DC to release the findings (on October 21), but most of the sites we are studying are mainstream corporate sites or sites for local government agencies such as city bus schedules.
My perspective is broader than simply government sites and Federal regulations. I think *all* sites should be accessible: corporate sites will benefit from the loyal customers they will get if they serve this segment better. In the studies we have done so far, we have seen that disabled users have very harsh comments on inaccessible sites. This attitude is completely understandable and I don't think most companies realize how much damage they are doing to their reputation by refusing service to disabled customers. Looking at this finding in a different light, those few companies that do provide good service to disabled users get that much more loyal customers as a result.
As I said, rather than obsessing with regulations, I am looking at real human behavior. Unfortunately, such studies take some time if they are to be as thorough as I would like them to be. Thus, we are not going to be ready to release the findings until October 2001.
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http://www.access-board.gov/ - US Access Board http://trace.wisc.edu/world/web/ - Designing More Usable Web Sites http://www.section508.gov/ - Federal IT Accessibility Initiative http://www.gigalaw.com/ - GigaLaw.com, All things Net legal (Doug Isenberg's site) http://www.webreference.com/authoring/design/usability/ - WebRef http://www.useit.com/ - Useit.com, Jakob Nielsen on usability http://www.w3.org/WAI/ - W3C Accessibility Initiative http://www.webstandards.com - Zeldman and co. on Web standards
Sites for the Blind http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,27000,00.html The Industry Standard, June 18, 2001 Issue
That's it for this week, see you next time.
Scott Clark Managing Editor, WebReference.com email@example.com
Dan Ragle Assistant Editor, WebReference.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew King Newsletter Editor, WebReference.com email@example.com
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