Ever try to navigate the Web with your eyes closed? Without a mouse? Fifty million Americans are differently-abled, and nearly half of these people encounter difficulties accessing the World Wide Web. The U.S. government recently took steps to tackle the accessibility issue. Here's some coverage of the issue.
Adjustments for people with various impairments are justly made in every facet of life. However, an aspect we often don't think about—and one that is likely taken for granted—is fair and easy access to technology, especially the Internet. Open your Web browser. Now try and navigate without using your mouse. You did not get very far, did you? Now you can imagine the hardships with which many people deal every day in the information-technology world. Fifty million Americans are differently-abled, and nearly half of these people encounter difficulties accessing the World Wide Web.
The U.S. government recently took steps to tackle the accessibility issue. In 1998, Congress amended Section 508 of the 1988 Workforce Investment Act to strengthen provisions covering differently-abled Americans' access to information in the federal government. The law, which applies to all federal agencies developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, directs an interagency group composed of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (also known as the Access Board) and the General Services Administration (GSA) to develop access standards that will become part of the Federal Procurement Regulations.
The interagency group released a report in fall 2000 to be implemented during the subsequent six months. The message in the report is clear: if computer manufacturers don't design their software and hardware products with accessibility in mind, they will be denied the federal government's huge purchasing power, as the government will not be able to buy their products. The requirements of Section 508, developed by the U.S. Department of Education together with IT vendors such as Compaq, Microsoft, and Oracle, are expected to be reflected in the private sector within five years of adoption by the federal government. Until then, the issue leaves room for potential lawsuits—one example being the National Federation for the Blind suing America Online in November 1999 for failing to provide adequate access to its site. Although progress is slow, some measures are already being taken by computer manufacturers to help these 25 million users. Here are some examples.
Microsoft Active Accessibility
One technology that will help facilitate the growth of assistive hardware and software products is Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA). This application programming interface (API) provides standard ways for software (including non-Microsoft products) to plug into the Windows features used by assistive hardware and software. The MSAA API exposes code, so developers of assistive software can write applications that can work with, access, or use most system-provided user interface elements, such as list boxes and buttons. Building software to standards such as MSAA allows customers to choose their preferred assistive technology, such as a screen reader or a refreshable Braille display. Companies including Adobe Systems and JetForm are adopting MSAA API. Adobe develops the Acrobat document viewing application. JetForm is planning to release server-based form-creation software that allows the user's Web browser to specify the document format. This is especially helpful in rendering a single-column format, which is easily deciphered by screen-reading devices.
For the Hearing Impaired
Operating systems and most software packages such as word processors and spreadsheets are text based, making the special needs of those with hearing impairments comparatively simple to address. All that needs to be done is to amplify the computer's sound with a special sound card, headset, or speakers. In situations where the user is nearly or completely deaf, simple computer sounds (such as the "bell" tone heard when an error condition occurs) can be represented as screen text. And as larger capacity media such as DVDs are used for multimedia products, it will be easy to include a "subtitles" option for the audio portion.
For Those with Hand/Arm Mobility Deficits
Users who have difficulty moving and clicking a mouse have long been able to navigate with the keyboard by pressing the arrow, tab, enter, and "hot" keys. This works well for navigating through simple menus, button bars, and text documents. But the difficulty remains when there are multiple levels of menus and tool bars or numerous rows, columns, graphics, and embedded controls, which are often laid out in a nonlinear format.
On-Screen Keyboard Navigation
An alternative to keyboard-assisted navigation is using head motions to move and position the cursor. A light- or infrared-emitting unit is centered on top of the monitor, and the user wears either an adhesive-backed reflecting dot on the forehead or a headset with a receiving unit mounted on the front and a cable connecting it to the transmitter. The user can click the mouse by pressing the enter key, touching an external button with finger, wrist, elbow, or foot, or by puffing and sipping a tube placed in the mouth and connected to the motion-detecting headset to respectively produce left and right mouse clicks.
If typing several keys in tandem for particular functions is a challenge, a "sticky keys" feature can be used, whereby the first key pressed remains active while the user hits the next key(s) of the required combination. If only an on-screen keyboard can be used, the speed and ease of data entry can be improved if the device has an "auto completion" feature displaying a list of words corresponding to the first few letters the user activates with the pointing/clicking device. The user then selects the correct word and avoids having to enter all the letters. Ideally the on-screen keyboard program should have the ability to "learn" new words entered by the user that are not in the dictionary. This would be extremely helpful to users who frequently enter the same proper nouns and technical terms.
Voice Recognition Software
A voice recognition software application is also useful to enter data and navigate the user interface, but it has a steeper learning curve and usually works best with a high-end sound card and microphone or headset. Setup and calibration of the software can be complex. The registration procedure is particularly difficult, since the user must read a passage aloud for about ten minutes so the aid can "learn" his/her individual pronunciation. Users speaking a language other than their native tongue may be prompted to read several additional passages for recognition to be effective. Fortunately, setup data can be stored in a file so the registration process can be bypassed if the software must be reinstalled.Ideally, once voice recognition applications are installed and configured, the user is able to simply dictate documents, email messages, database entries, and numerical values for spreadsheets with reasonable speed and accuracy.
Nevertheless, the equipment may fall short if
- The computer is in a noisy environment and the noise-cancellation technology of the sound card and/or microphone is not of high enough quality
- The computer lacks a fast CPU (e.g., 400 MHz or more) and enough memory so processing the speech becomes extremely slow
- The user has a strong foreign accent or speech impediment, and even multiple registrations cannot completely compensate for this
- The user wants to enter foreign words and phrases, technical and scientific terms, or other speech that is not easily recognized by the software
- The user needs to pause mid-sentence, perhaps to catch his/her breath or read from a manuscript
Depending on the type of speech, the user may have to spell out many letters (possibly requiring use of military alphabet words such as alpha, bravo, and charlie) in order to achieve the desired level of accuracy.
For the Sight Impaired
Visual impairments are perhaps the most difficult to accommodate as the computing environment is highly graphical. Screen magnifiers can help users with moderate visual impairment by magnifying the entire display area two- to four-fold and allowing the user to selectively enlarge portions of the screen or to create a partially magnified split-screen display or a zoomed "picture in picture." For users unable to see magnified displays, refreshable Braille screens are available along with various screen-reading (text to speech) applications. Some screen readers can vocalize both screen content (e.g., menus, Web pages, and spreadsheet cells) and user input entered via the keyboard (standard or Braille). Alternatively, a screen reader can be coupled with a voice-recognition application, so that both computer screen display and user input can be handled verbally.
Considerations for Web Development
According to an eWeek article entitled "Web Blind Spots" from 10 April 2000, between 95 and 99 percent of Web sites are still not completely accessible to the visual, hearing, and/or mobility impaired, especially sites using proprietary, customized software. The nonlinear organization of many Web pages, and the generous use of tables, frames, graphics, buttons, and icons in place of simple text make it difficult to effectively use screen readers and keyboard-based or voice-activated navigation. However, use of the "ALT" tag in a Web page's HTML code can help vendors make their Web sites accessible and attractive without breaking the bank. Supported by most browsers, the "ALT" tag allows Web programmers to assign brief text descriptions to images and navigational icons such as buttons and links. With a screen reader, a visually impaired user can get an audio description of the ALT-tagged icon and can more easily navigate the site. A Web site can also be designed to offer the user a low bandwidth version, consisting of single-column text in place of graphics, tables, frames, and other formatting enhancements.
Other techniques for creating accessible Web sites are discussed in the World Wide Web Consortium's document "Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0," available at www.w3.org/TR/ATAG10. In addition, Web designers can assess the degree that their sites are accessible using the "Bobby" test, developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (www.cast.org).