The following article is reprinted with permission from Spare Change News, September 2, 2005. For more information about Spare Change News, be sure to visit the Spare Change News Blog.
In 1998 a Congressional amendment was passed to require Federal agencies to make electronic information accessible to those with disabilities. Referred to as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, this amendment covers many areas of information technology, including web-based implementations.
Although privately owned web sites are not required by law to follow Section 508 guidelines, equal access to information is an important objective that can be understood to benefit all. Several Boston newspaper sites are not fully compliant with these guidelines; some areas of the sites are inaccessible or inadequately accessible to people with disabilities. Spare Change News investigated what this means for people with disabilities trying to navigate the sites, and what the newspapers can do to improve accessibility.
Access guidelines were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, otherwise known as the W3C. For web-based technology, such as intranet or internet sites, the guidelines call for text-based descriptions or tags for all content not otherwise represented in text, such as a photograph; for transcriptions and/or captions to be provided for all audio content in multimedia presentations; and for discouraging the use of color to change meaning on a web page. Also the guidelines stress the importance of simplicity on a web site, both in terms of what the user encounters but also behind the scenes.
Andy Forman, a Disability Advocate at the Boston Center for Independent Living, explained to Spare Change News that there are several software programs and assistive devices that help people with disabilities to access the web. But these programs and devices rely on the way the web page is structured to provide useful information to the user of the site.
People with low vision can often benefit from products like ZoomText— software that magnifies computer screens— and JAWS, a screen reading program for persons with blindness.
Forman explained that the manufacturers of these devices and software are always working to improve them, but if a web site has an especially complicated layout, or is not properly tagged, the output from the reader can be unintelligible.
"We do get complaints about the local newspaper sites," Forman explained. "When a site has a two-column layout, as The Boston Globe web site does, sometimes the readers will read the first line of both columns in succession, then the second line, and so on, so to the human it makes no sense." Also, Forman noted, the screen reading devices have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and content on the page, so it may run the ads together with the content if the two elements are not separated clearly. "The readers also tend to have trouble with certain PDF files, as well," Forman added.
In recent years, efforts have been under way to keep electronic content accessible to people with disabilities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in partnership with WGBH, formed the National Center for Accessible Media in 1993 to ensure that technology stays accessible to all people.
Mary Watkins of NCAM told Spare Change News: "Since 1996, WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media has received funding for several projects focused on researching Web accessibility issues and developing solutions and strategies for the development of accessible content." Watkins continued, "As part of this ongoing series of projects, NCAM staff also work with major software and hardware manufacturers, the Federal government and others to disseminate technology, techniques and information to make the Web more accessible. This includes participating in the Web Access Initiative (WAI), sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Our ongoing efforts to reach out to on-line service providers, corporate and non-profit webmasters, and others in the Web community make clear the importance of accessibility."
The W3C's guidelines for accessibility outline several scenarios in which people with disabilities routinely use the internet. In some cases, assistive devices are used; in others, people use adaptive strategies and behaviors.
One scenario the W3C refers to is the case of an online shopper with colorblindness. If the person is trying to buy, say, a pair of jeans online, and the web site's order form instructs them to "fill out the green boxes," they may not be able to tell which boxes are green, because they cannot visually distinguish this color. The W3C suggests that instead of using color to indicate required fields, the site can place an asterisk or other character next to the required fields.
Another situation is a student with dyslexia who is doing research online. The use of graphics to display complex information, the avoidance of distracting motion and colors, and the ability to locate information in multiple ways can all help the student to find the information more easily.
A third situation the W3C cites is a teenager with deafness and low vision who is going to the web for entertainment purposes. Some of the strategies the teen may use to access the information include seeking out multimedia files which are captioned, so that a screen reader device can read the captions and produce a Braille display for her to read; and using sites with simpler designs so that magnifying screen devices and other assistive technologies can help.
The Boston Globe's web site, www.boston.com, in addition to having a 2-column layout on some pages, also mixes advertising content with editorial content in a way that assistive devices would have difficulty interpreting. Most of the video content on the site is not closed-captioned for the hearing impaired, although some devices could interpret the audio files on the site. Some images do not have alternate text tags, so screen reading devices might miss that content.
Ads pop up in new windows, some with animation, and the pages are extremely crowded with information. This can be very distracting to a person with dyslexia or a cognitive impairment. The search engine uses the color red to identify required fields, which someone with color blindness might not be able to distinguish. The site does offer a plain-text version of the pages (the printer-friendly version), which may be a good alternative for disabled users with or without assistive devices. However, this benefit is not prominent on the site.
The Boston Herald's site, www.bostonherald.com, has similar accessibility problems. There are few descriptive tags on images; ad content is mixed with editorial content (the word "Advertisement" that is meant to distinguish ads from other content is itself a graphic file, so screen readers might not pick it up). On the home page there is an image map which one needs to click to enlarge. But the words "Click to enlarge" are embedded in the image file itself, which would make it difficult for an assistive device to pick up. Small, light print at the bottom of the real estate page is almost totally unreadable even to someone who is not visually impaired. The Herald's site layout is simpler than the Globe's, and like the Globe, the Herald's site does offer a plain-text, printer-friendly version of the content, but this feature does not stand out.
The Boston Phoenix web site, thephoenix.com, can also be a challenge for users with disabilities. Not all the images on the home page have descriptive tagging. Some of the links on the home page are graphics, not text, and there are no descriptive tags. So a screen reader might have difficulty detecting the presence of that information. The classified ads section is graphic-based, not text-based. There do not appear to be any text-only versions of pages. The main sections of the site have a 2-column layout. And flashing ads and distracting graphics are prevalent.
Brenda Stanton of The Boston Phoenix told Spare Change News: "We are in the process of a major web project. We are launching a new site for which we will be taking the W3C's recommendations for web accessibility into consideration." (The Boston Globe and Boston Herald staff did not return a call seeking comment.)
To make their sites more accessible to the disabled, the newspapers can take the following steps:
These are just some of the guidelines the W3C suggest. Visit Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview and Section 508 for complete details.
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