The World Wide Web brings many different features to people around the world today. Yet imagine if you were unable to use a keyboard to type a message to someone through an email, or use a mouse to control features through software that enables others to use the web.
Suppose you were unable to tell the difference between green, blue and red, or if a captcha used for security purposes kept you from purchasing items through the Internet-Technologies designed to make use of the Internet easy can also make it either difficult or impossible to use for some.
The amount of business being conducted online continues to grow, as does the number of people with disabilities who are also consumers. It makes sense for businesses to make their sites on the Internet accessible. They are hiring consultants, as well as training programmers, in order to make their sites accessible and reap the benefits. Business owners with a presence on the Internet are increasingly aware that if their website is not accessible to the greater than fifty-million people with disabilities in America alone, they are losing customers.
The World Wide Web Consortium, also referred to as, 'W3C,' is an international community with Member organizations, full-time staff members, and participants from the public. Together they work to develop Web standards. They are led by Tim Barners-Lee, Web inventor, to lead the Web to its full potential. The W3C's mission is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential through development of both protocols and guidelines which ensure the long-term growth of the Web. One of the primary goals of the W3C is to make the benefits of the Web available to everyone, despite their hardware, software, network infrastructure, language, culture, location, or their physical or mental ability.
The Consortium has issued guidelines that website designers can use to assist them in the creation of sites that are more accessible. The guidelines include the provision of text labels for images, making keyboard shortcuts for those who are unable to use a mouse, as well as captions for both video and audio. Shawn Lawton, Outreach Coordinator, stated at the Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, "When the Web is designed well, it is so enabling. It allows people to contribute on an equal plane."
Federal government web sites are required by law to be accessible, while corporations do not have the same legal obligation. Jim Thatcher is the creator of IBM's screen reader. Jim states that the threat of civil rights lawsuits is motivating companies to make their websites accessible. In one example of such a lawsuit, the Target Corporation agreed to pay six-million dollars in damages to plaintiffs in a California class action lawsuit who could not use their website. Jim Thatcher was an expert witness during the trial. Jim stated that there were a number of links on Target's site that were unintelligible to people using screen-reading software. Jim also stated that there have been improvements since the settlement with the National Federation of the Blind.
The Apple Corporation has also reached an agreement, one with the State of Massachusetts. Apple has agreed to alter their iTunes program, making it accessible to persons who are blind. It is very worth noting that the Apple Corporation's iPhone has received praise for it's accessibility features, which includes screen reader audio as a standard feature. Experts say that the key to understanding web accessibility is to first understand how people with disabilities use the Web.
The Yahoo Corporation's headquarters in Silicon Valley has an Accessibility Lab that permits developers and programmers to try a variety of assistive hardware and software technologies. The directors of Yahoo's lab, Alan Brightman and Victor Tsaran, show visitors to the lab how screen readers work, make them try Braille keyboards, joy sticks, head-controlled mouse, trackballs, and additional tools used by people with disabilities to navigate the Web. While it may come across as rather, 'wheelchair for a day,' their goal is to make people feel more at ease with disabilities. Victor Tsaran says, "Our task is to make technology work for people. Accessibility is a big, big, big part of that."
Yahoo opened their Accessibility Lab nearly two years ago, making it available to their employees and developers from other companies. Alan Brightman stated, "Our feeling is everything should be as accessible as possible. Let's not compete over whether a disabled person can use your site. It's like sidewalks. You build a wheelchair ramp and not only is it a better sidewalk for those users, but for strollers, luggage, delivery people." Yahoo has also recently made upgrades to its own home page to add labels which make it easier for people who use screen readers to maneuver around the page. Yahoo has also added audio captcha image verifications.
The Google Corporation's programmers have made use of Yahoo's Accessibility Lab. Google has recently introduced automatic machine-generated captions for videos through YouTube, making them accessible to persons who are either hearing impaired or deaf.
Google has also recently release, 'Donut,' or Android, which includes accessibility features that are designed to make applications for it more usable by persons who have either low-vision or are blind. Android version 1.6 includes a built-in screen reader and text-to-speech engine that makes it possible for people to use most of the applications for Android, as well as the Android user interface, while they are not looking at the screen. Google has stated that Android-powered devices that have version 1.6, as well as future software versions, will all include the following accessibility features:
Text-to-Speech (TTS) - with voices for English (U.S. and U.K.), French, Italian, Spanish and German
A standardized Text To Speech API
A set of easy to use accessibility APIs that make it possible to create accessibility aids such as screen readers for the blind
All image controls have associated textual metadata
Applications provide spoken, auditory and vibration feedback
Eyes-Free provides several UI enhancements for using touch-screen input
The web browser and browser-based applications available for Android do not, 'talk,' at this time, although Google is working at achieving this capability for future releases.
Efforts Towards Unified Accessibility
There are various standards efforts that are already in progress by different nations, such as the European Union, the International Organizations for Standards (ISO), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and private groups, with the intention of fostering technological accessibility.
Europe has historically been the most vigorous applier of ergonomics standards where IT purchases are concerned. Europe has a number of uncoordinated sets of country-specific regulations that await consolidation through the European Union. Should historical pattern prevail, the European Union may base regulations on a mixture of countries guidelines and ISO standards.
The Japanese government has agencies that include MITI which are circulating recommendations on ways that IT should be deployed, providing accessibility features to everyone. Once these features have been reviewed and agreements reached, the recommendations will become regulations for doing business with the ministries.
There are other nations following suit, such as Nordic countries that have published accessibility guidelines. Both Thailand and Portugal have introduced legislation that directly requires Web accessibility. Nations to include Canada and Australia have legislation making it a civil right for people with disabilities to be able to access certain forms of information.