“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” — Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web.In many areas of our lives, we may face hurdles because of the disabilities we experience. Often, we turn to technology for solutions. But what if the technology by the nature of its design creates new barriers? A fantastic modern-day example is the Internet.
The Internet is becoming more and more integrated into our educational, work and recreational lives. Practically everything has an electronic counterpart; an “e-” alternative. As more people and organizations embrace these often tantalizingly cost-effective, sensually stimulating, and instantly gratifying tools, pressure increases for others in society to “jump on the bandwagon” or risk being left behind. These tools include e-mail, websites, e-news, instant messengers, chat rooms, e-groups, virtual meetings/conferences, and on and on. But, are they universally accessible?
Because these tools are highly visual, sometimes incorporating audio aspects, they can create barriers for users experiencing visual and/or hearing impairments. Furthermore, the use of visual and audio content can be overwhelming-causing confusion about information navigation or use. Unfortunately, I naturally assumed e-content was accessible to everyone- it is cutting-edge technology after all! I was sure there was some “magic” behind the scenes or an easy “plug-in” to make everything accessible. Whoa, was I surprised and embarrassed when I received e-mails from colleagues! Turns out the portable document format (PDF) files I had created in Adobe Acrobat weren’t so portable after all- the text could not be interpreted by screen-readers! So, does the problem lie within the technology, the way I created the files, the programs used to open the files or what?!? Probably a combination. But, there are some steps we as designers, creators and users can take to bridge this digital divide.
One approach for technology users is through accessibility-specific Internet-browsers. For example, IBM recently announced the release of Home Page Reader ($150), a talking Web browser designed to help businesses meet the needs of employees and customers who have visual impairments. Other leading products include Connect Outloud ($249), MAGic ($400-$700) and JAWS ($1,000-$1,300) from Freedom Scientific. JAWS provides speech technology that works with the computer’s operating system to access popular software applications and the Internet. Connect Outloud is a tool offering Braille and speech output to the web and gives the user the ability to send and receive e-mail. MAGic helps those with low vision to view information on their computer screen with magnification up to 16 times, while also hearing it through their speech synthesizer. Sadly, I have found little information regarding adaptive technology transforming audio content for users experiencing hearing impairment; though some webcasts are transcribed. While these existing programs are quite powerful, if electronic content is poorly designed, the barriers will still remain.
Content designers and developers should be mindful of a few easy steps toward accessibility, such as those suggested by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in its “Quick Tips Reference Card” www.w3.org/WAI/quicktips. The World Wide Web Consortium was created in October 1994 to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution. Their commitment to lead the Web to its full potential includes promoting a high degree of usability for people with disabilities. Their Web Accessibility Initiative, in coordination with organizations around the world, pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas: technology, guidelines, tools, education and research. They are an excellent resource.
For information about adaptable software, please visit:
IBM Accessibility Center Website
Freedom Scientific Website Information regarding universal design for e-content can be found via the World Wide Web.
Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative Website