Equal access for all Advocates for the disabled are asking Web designers to make pages accessible

August 03, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Eight years after the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land, activists who once fought for wheelchair ramps and beeping crosswalk signals have moved their battle to cyberspace. And David Poehlman is on the front lines.

Born blind, Poehlman is a computer consultant in Wheaton. In addition to work, he uses the World Wide Web to chat with friends, check bus and train schedules, shop for everything from CDs to garden hoses and scan the daily papers.

"After I got on the Net," he says, "my life changed."

For blind people once limited to books and other documents published in Braille or available through audio or telephone services, the Web is more than a diversion - it can be a lifeline.

Says Kurt Milam of Baltimore, who also is blind: "The Internet puts so much information at our fingertips, and it's often easier to read. A 500-page book is 20 volumes in Braille."

But as Web designers unleash flashy, animated graphics and sound to draw attention to their sites, some people with disabilities worry that the very technology that gave them unprecedented independence may someday shut them out.

To navigate the Web, Poehlman and other visually impaired surfers use their computer keyboard and "screen reader" software, which "speaks" text on the screen in a synthesized human voice.

As Poehlman pokes around the Web, his screen reader talks to him in a choppy monotone. "Blank," it drones when he maneuvers his cursor over an empty spot. "Period," it blurts when he reaches the end of a sentence.

But often, Poehlman and others say, screen readers stumble. Common stylistic flourishes employed by Web designers - such as frames, tables or columns - can render a screen reader speechless.

Nor can the software decipher a graphic image unless a Web designer has added some descriptive text, such as "Mom's picture" or "Click here to purchase." When Poehlman's screen reader encounters an unlabeled graphic, it rasps only, "Graphic." If the unlabeled image is a link to another page or part of a menu, a blind Web surfer could sail past the very information he or she is looking for.

"You know it's a graphic, but what?" says Poehlman. "Point and click is not as easy as some people seem to think it is."

As a result, Poehlman and others are pushing software publishers and Web designers to develop "electronic curb cuts," technical changes to make the Web more accessible to screen readers and other helpers.

"A person who reaches a Web site should feel like it was made just for them. There shouldn't be a sense of, 'Here's what you're missing out on,' " said Suzan Dolloff, a St. Louis Web designer with a brain tumor that makes her temporarily blind at unpredictable times.

Last month, Dolloff launched an online protest against GeoCities, a popular Internet community with nearly 2 million users, complaining that its design made it difficult for her to navigate with her screen reader.

GeoCities founder and President David Bohnett quickly responded with an e-mail saying GeoCities would work to make the site more accessible, but Dolloff says she hasn't seen any improvement.

A GeoCities spokeswoman said she would not comment on the issue because the company is in a mandatory "quiet" period in preparation for a public stock offering.

To head off such conflicts, the World Wide Web Consortium, an international group of specialists that guides the development of the Web, last year launched a three-year project to develop accessibility guidelines for Web designers and software companies.

"The Web is a moving target - that's one of our biggest challenges," says Judy Brewer, director of the consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative. "You can really get tripped up by the pace of technological change."

One solution, she said, would be for Web-site-construction software, such as Microsoft Front Page, to prompt designers for information such as text labels for graphics or closed-captions for multimedia elements.

Web designers who don't make sites accessible might find themselves in legal hot water, advocates for the disabled say. In 1996, the Justice Department ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to Web sites. In addition, some legal experts say portions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the federal Rehabilitation Act could also apply to the Web. But none of these has been tested in court yet.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and other high-tech companies are working on ways to make the Web and their own products more accessible to disabled computer users.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant is developing technology that would allow video and audio clips on the Web to be closed-captioned for the hearing impaired. RealNetworks Inc., a maker of streaming audio and video technology for the Web, is developing similar software.

Advocates also argue that making the Web more accessible to the disabled can benefit all users, just as curb cuts benefit bicycle riders and parents pushing baby strollers.

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