Is Your Site Accessible?

Wheelchair ramps for the Information Superhighway


Some day soon, you may open your morning newspaper and discover a few features are missing:

• Sports scores will be mostly gone, with only the home teams' games and national championship results reported.

• The color weather map will be replaced by a black-and-white version with 1950s-era isobar lines.

• The stock tables will have been dropped in favor of lists of the five most active stocks traded, and perhaps the day's biggest winners and losers.

What will have happened? Under an order from the U.S. Department of Justice, your local newspaper will have been forced to drop those and other features because they are not accessible to people with disabilities.

So say goodbye to small type (too hard for some to read), thus ending comprehensive lists of sports statistics and securities trading. And of course that weather map has to go: It's not accessible to the color-blind.

Sound crazy? Does the Justice Department really have the power to review the design of newspapers? Well, maybe–though not yet the print versions. It may well be assuming the power to review any newspaper's online design.

Webmasters, Uncle Sam wants you to make your Web site more accessible to those who are blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled. And it's not a suggestion: It's the law. The new rules are mandated by a little-known provision of the Workforce Investment Act enacted by Congress last year. Under Section 508 of that law, the new rules will apply later this year to all Web sites operated by federal agencies, by anyone doing business with the federal government, and by many–perhaps all–state governments.

But those guidelines might also soon apply to everyone who puts up a Web site anywhere in the country. For now, the Section 508 rules will be voluntary guidelines. But members of the new federal Web site commission were quoted by the trade news service Ziff Davis in April as asserting that companies and individuals who do not adopt the rules "voluntarily" could soon face a legal mandate to comply–or be exposed to lawsuits filed by any disabled individual who could not read all of the information on a site.

Section 508 is one of those laws that sounds as controversial as apple pie: It simply requires that Web sites be adjusted so that disabled persons can read them. Web site designers will be required to restructure their content, design, and underlying technologies to allow individuals with disabilities "to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities." Who could object to helping the disabled?

But the real question is: Just how should the Internet be "fixed" to be more accessible? The new federal Web site committee established by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the people who regulate wheelchair ramps and hallway widths) offered its answer in May, drafting new rules for online publishing. Provisions required that streaming audio or audio files be accompanied by simultaneous text, including, "where appropriate, in tactile form"; that streaming video be captioned; that the use of color to convey information be restricted; and that webmasters "provide at least one mode that does not require user vision" by formatting all information so that it is compatible with braille and speech synthesis devices.

Other regulations ban touch screens, prohibit moving text or animation (unless the user can go to a static display with the same information), and require all Web sites to "provide at least one mode that minimizes the cognitive, and memory ability required of the user."

Web site problems that need fixing were discussed in an attachment to a memorandum from Attorney General Janet Reno that explained the new law. "For example, a system that provides output only in audio format would not be accessible to people with hearing impairments," reads the explanation, "and a system that requires mouse actions to navigate would not be accessible to people who cannot use a mouse."

So say goodbye to streaming audio and video, unless you can provide simultaneous text translation. Say goodbye to graphical user interfaces, unless you can provide simultaneous keyboard commands–available in braille and audio.

Who is affected by the new rules? Advocates of last year's legislation say it applies only to federal Web sites. That may (or may not) have been what Congress intended, but that is clearly not what is being planned. For example, the U.S. Department of Education asserts that "states which receive Federal funds under the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, are required by that Act to comply with Section 508." Those words open the scope of the law to every state.

The people drafting the rules believe they should apply to everyone. Who are they? As is customary, the federal government asked interested individuals to nominate themselves to serve on the drafting committee. In this case, Section 508 required consultation with "public or nonprofit agencies or organizations, including organizations representing individuals with disabilities." Not surprisingly, most of those appointed were representatives of such groups as the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, Easter Seals, the National Association of the Deaf, the National Federation of the Blind, and the United Cerebral Palsy Associations.

Members of the committee assert that the federal government has the power to regulate the form and content of online information–as opposed to print, where the government does not have such power–because the federal government paid for the development of the Internet. "The Internet is subject to market forces, but it didn't start through market forces, it was started by the federal government," said Jenifer Simpson, a committee member and manager of technology initiatives at the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, in an interview with Ziff Davis. Simpson added that the rights of the disabled must prevail over other considerations. "This is really a civil rights issue," she said.

And if online publishers decline to adopt the committee's new guidelines voluntarily, the guidelines could become mandatory under federal law for all Web sites, according to both Simpson and Judy Brewer, another committee member who is also director of the Web Access Initiative.

Janet Reno believes the new law covers more than just Web sites. "The scope of Section 508 is expansive," she wrote in the memorandum describing the law's jurisdiction, and "potentially includes all telecommunications devices (including telephones, voice-mail systems, pagers, facsimile machines, and related technology) and any technology used to convey, transmit, or receive any kind of information."

The new rules will become final early next year, but it is already possible to see how they would work. For those inside the government, Attorney General Reno announced the creation of a federal Web site (www.508.org) to help Webmasters ascertain whether they are in compliance with the new law. But this site was only accessible from government computers–specifically, according to the attorney general's memorandum, from .gov and .mil domains.

For everyone else, the Web Access Initiative developed and published its own set of proposed guidelines that could be adopted as federal law (www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT). The first guideline requires Web sites to supply text alternatives for all images and graphics. "Thus, a text equivalent for an image of an upward arrow that links to a table of contents could be `Go to table of contents,'" the provision reads. A second provision bars the use of color to convey information unless explanatory text is also available, because "people who cannot differentiate between certain colors and users with devices that have non-color or non-visual displays will not receive the information."

Other requirements prohibit using multiple languages on the same page, because that can hinder translation by braille readers, and discourage the "use (or misuse)" of tables and other formatting that "makes it difficult for users with specialized software to understand the organization of the page or to navigate through it." Yet another provision requires webmasters to "ensure that moving, blinking, scrolling, or auto-updating objects or pages may be paused or stopped" and to design all pages so they are "usable by people without mice, with small screens, low resolution screens, black and white screens, no screens, with only voice and text output, etc."

Another Web site lets online publishers test their sites using some of the suggested guidelines that soon may have the force of federal law behind them. The Center for Applied Special Technology (www.cast.org) has posted free software it calls Bobby, illustrated with an image of a jovial waving policeman. That cheerful logo doubles as a seal of approval that can be downloaded and used by Web sites that meet Bobby's accessibility guidelines. Bobby has already flunked a number of widely used Web sites, including the White House site, where the software identified "13 accessibility problems that should be fixed in order to make this page accessible to people with disabilities."

Bobby may be waving with his right hand, but in his left hand, not visible in the logo, may be a billy club: Section 508.

Adam C. Powell III (apowell@alum.mit.edu) is vice president of technology and programs at The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan international foundation dedicated to free press and free speech.