Network: In cyberspace, the deaf can hear you scream

The Internet finally seems to be fulfilling its promise for the disabled.
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The Independent Culture
Few groups had more to gain from the advent of the Web than those with disabilities. The text-heavy medium promised the disabled greater accessibility to information, services and community. For the blind in particular, screen readers and Braille converters meant better access to news and books than ever before. Unfortunately, that promise hasn't held out. Web designers often don't take accessibility for the disabled into account, neglecting, for example, to provide alternatives to visual and aural cues.

The BBC's Web site is a case in point. A year ago, the site was practically inaccessible to the blind. Text was arranged in columns, and since screen readers read across the screen from left to right, what they read sounded like gibberish. Moreover, the site was wide and shallow, with dozens of links from the home page. Sighted users could scan the links quickly, but blind users had to listen to the long list of links.

Last June, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) started talks with the BBC about web accessibility issues. "Their Web designers came to see a demonstration about what the difficulties were for a visually impaired person trying to access the Web, and they were absolutely bowled over," says Steve Tyler of the RNIB. "They have taken it very seriously, which is brilliant."

The BBC responded by developing Betsie (BBC Education Text to Speech Internet Enhancer (http: //www.bbc.co.uk/education/betsie/), a Web page filter that makes changes in the HTML of each page (eg, removing images and unnecessary formatting) so that the text will read easily from top to bottom.

Betsie is limited at the moment, says Wayne Myers, who developed the filter, and it still has problems accessing about 5 per cent of pages. But the BBC is working on improvements. A new version will cater to a broader range of impairments: for example, colourblind users will be able to set background and text colours.

Another organisation working towards better accessibility is Online Originals (www.onlineoriginals.com), a UK-based Web company that publishes and delivers books via the Internet. Last month, Online Originals announced that, in partnership with the National Library for the Blind (NLB), it would offer three titles free to NLB members as text-only files compatible with speech synthesis and Braille software. For the visually impaired, this kind of Web publishing is a great boon, says Simon Jennings, IT manager for the NLB. In Braille, 2,000 pages amounts to about 60 volumes; now people can download and access thousands of pages at a time.

But this kind of attention to Web accessibility is rare in the UK, where organisations are not currently required to make their Web sites and Web- based services accessible to people with disabilities. Both BBC and Online Originals changed their services voluntarily.

"Nothing in the Disability Discrimination Act requires designers to make changes to their products," a spokesman for the Disability Policy Division of the Department for Education and Employment says. "Whether or not a disabled person can access the Internet is likely to depend on the equipment they use rather than on the design of any particular website."

That isn't true, say advocates for the disabled, who point out that although screen readers are widely and inexpensively available, they only work if designers have taken steps to make their pages accessible. Many publicly funded government sites - including 10 Downing Street - are inaccessible to the blind, even if they are using up-to-date software. But recent developments suggest that better accessibility may be on its way.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) stipulates that after October, goods and services must be offered on equal terms to disabled people. Although the DDA doesn't specifically mention the Web, its code of practice, published this month, states that websites must be made accessible.

"To have it expressly mentioned in there is wonderful," says Julie Howell, Access to Digital Information Campaigns Officer for the RNIB, which plans to push cases that test the DDA's application to websites into the courts.

In May, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the organisation that develops common standards for the Web, issued Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT- 19990505/). These explain how authors, designers and developers can make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. The guidelines include a list of principles for developers to follow (eg, the need to provide equivalent alternatives for auditory and visual information), and a prioritised checklist to help developers review their websites' accessibility.

In the US, federal government sites - which are required to be accessible to people with disabilities under the American Disabilities Act - have already adopted these guidelines. Corporations such as IBM and Boeing have also shown support for the guidelines.

Here in the UK, the guidelines have met with less support. "The Government doesn't seem to want to adopt the Web Access Initiative guidelines," says Steve Tyler, who worked on the WAI co-ordinating group. "They'll go so far as to acknowledge that WAI exists, but they won't do anything about it."

The W3C and the RNIB are working to increase awareness of Web accessibility, both in government organisations and in the design community. The RNIB has recently released Websites that Work, a video that shows designers how to make their sites more accessible to the UK's 8.5 million people with disabilities. Julie Howell hopes that the Government will start showing more support for the guidelines. "Government and local government websites are key targets for us. They need to lead by example."

Campaigners for better Web accessibility are quick to point out that good Web accessibility doesn't only benefit those with disabilities. Text equivalents help all users find pages more quickly, since search robots use the text when indexing the pages. And people without disabilities often access the Web under impaired circumstances.

"Consider that many users may be operating in contexts very different from your own," begins chapter 1 of W3C's guidelines. "They may not be able to see, hear, move, or may not be able to process some types of information easily or at all. They may have a text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow Internet connection... They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears, or hands are busy or interfered with."

So as people start checking e-mail from their cars, or surfing the Web from mobile phones, accessibility will become important for everyone.

"People think of the Web as something you access with a computer and keyboard, but over the next few years that will become less true," says Tyler. "People will be accessing it from all kinds of places. We need to get in on the ground level and make sure the Web is accessible."

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