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Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
By John M. Slatin,, Sharron Rush
Table of Contents
Chapter 4.  Grassroots Efforts Support Maximum Accessibility


The development of e-government initiatives has raised the ante on accessibility. The obligation of government agencies to provide equal services to all citizens is unquestioned. Many state, county, and municipal government agencies are following the lead of the federal government in making information and services available via the Internet. Web sites that provide a high degree of interactivity are increasingly employed to offer government services and to allow citizens to fulfill civic responsibilities, including licensing, tax payments, and communication with elected officials. This is a tremendous way to encourage citizen engagement with government, and clearly it is a case in which the attainment of the highest level of accessibility cannot be compromised.

Federal mandates for accessibility, the Section 508 provisions examined in Chapter 3, have been followed by state legislative mandates and, in many cases, municipal or other local government policy statements of commitment to accessibility. Savvy commercial software developers will keep this in mind as they market their services to state and local government entities that may need a high level of accessibility compliance to be able to purchase software and implement e-government initiatives.

Accessibility Efforts by the City of San Jose and Others

Among the most progressive cities in the United States in this regard is the City of San Jose, California. The San Jose home page displays a link called "Access Instructions for Users with Disabilities." Following the link takes you to the page shown in Figure 4-1.

Figure 4-1. Screen shot of a page explaining the accessibility features of the City of San Jose Web site. Accessed January 2, 2002, at http://www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/access.html.

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A few things are worth noting here. First is the clarity of the design. This site must be usable by the broadest imaginable range of users the entire multilingual, multigenerational, multicultural, and variously abled citizenry of the region. The designers have employed a consistent navigation scheme that seems straightforward and fairly intuitive at least to some. And therein lies another noteworthy feature. There are several different paths to the information a user may be seeking. Rather than depending on what might seem intuitive, the developers supplied various options so each user can decide how to navigate the site. Providing options is good design and is also very helpful for users who may employ assistive technology to browse. What is "intuitive" to people using assistive technology may be affected by the logic of the particular assistive devices they use. For example, someone who uses a mouse or joystick may believe it to be intuitive to point and click, but for someone who has never used a pointing device, the idea may be far from intuitive.

The accessibility options on the San Jose site are direct and clear. The page of instructions for users with disabilities, illustrated in Figure 4-1, is very helpful. The user learns what standards are being used and what considerations have been made, and just as importantly the page explains about unsolved access barriers. For example, when we accessed this site, the city had begun Web-casting city council and other public meetings but had not yet solved the challenge of closed captioning for a live event. Not only does the disclaimer communicate the basic awareness and respect for the city's responsibility, but the public relations value of the explanation cannot be overestimated. In light of the accessibility features that are built into this site, we can be confident that the city is not just paying lip service, as some organizations do, but has a serious commitment to accessibility. In such a case, we are likely to accept their explanation and offer feedback.

So in that spirit, we offer this critique. There are a couple of significant improvements needed to complete the accessibility of the City of San Jose site. It would be helpful if the link to the accessibility features were higher in the listed link order than 37 among 54. But, most important, a critical feature has been left entirely out of the navigation scheme the option to skip the navigation and proceed directly to the main content of the page. Figure 4-2 shows how this works.

Figure 4-2. Screen shot of the Volunteer Legal Services Accessibility page. Accessed January 3, 2002, at http://www.vlsoct.org/Accessibility.asp.

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Designed by a team of developers from Catapult Systems during the fourth annual Accessibility Internet Rally (more about that program follows), the site for Volunteer Legal Services includes many features that make the site as widely accessible as possible. Key among these is the Skip to Main Content link provided from an invisible image at the top of each page. Users of screen readers (or mobile browsing devices) are given the option to skip navigation elements entirely and to immediately enter the main content of the page. This is an accommodation that saves untold time for the user and costs almost nothing for the developer. It somewhat approximates the ability of the sighted user to scan past content that is repetitive and of no interest. Meanwhile, people who do not use assistive devices are completely unaware that the accommodation has even been made since it is invisible.

Public Responsibility

Government agencies and other providers of public services are increasingly aware of their responsibility to provide equitable access to information and services. Efforts to ensure inclusive services may be motivated by a sense of civic responsibility and may also come from the desire to avoid legal action. The final enforcement mechanism for government accessibility mandates is, after all, the dreaded lawsuit. Despite popular myth, most people do not scour their environments looking for reasons to sue the government, the business community, or each other. Lawsuits are expensive and time consuming regardless of the outcome, and most people would just as soon avoid them. People with disabilities are no different, and as they live daily with the challenges of accommodation, they are likely to be understanding and appreciative of sincere efforts in that direction. If the solution is less than perfect, a brief explanation of status and intent goes a long way toward creating goodwill and extending the patience of the user, especially if continuous progress toward maximum accessibility is demonstrated. The two sites featured above are exemplars of attempts to achieve accessible solutions for government and nonprofit entities as they increase their online services.

Community Technology Centers

The idea of providing access to technology in community settings evolved during the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s. Educators, parents, and community organizers throughout the country sought effective ways to provide socially or economically disadvantaged individuals with access to a range of emerging technologies, including personal computers and eventually the Internet. Many of these projects were delivered within community settings, such as libraries, neighborhood recreation halls, and senior activity centers.

One of the most successful of these projects was Playing to Win, founded by Antonia Stone, a former public school teacher who started a computer technology center in the basement of a housing development in Harlem in 1983. [1] The Harlem Community Computing Center provided the neighborhood with public access to personal computers as well as basic support for learning how to use the technology. By 1990, Playing to Win was a network that included six technology access programs in Harlem, the Boston area, Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh. Through a series of grant-funded programs and strategic alliances, the group has grown into a national nonprofit organization, the Community Technology Center Network, or CTC Net, with a membership of more than 500 community technology programs nationwide. CTC Net supports affiliate organizations by providing resource materials, conference opportunities, and evaluation methodologies. In addition, there are thousands of unaffiliated community technology centers that make huge differences in the lives of people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and races.

[1] For more history information, see http://www.ctcnet.org/history.html.

The excesses of the dot-com world have been documented and endlessly analyzed. Largely unnoticed, however, is the fact that the atmosphere of inevitability that sprang up around the dot-com craze led to the perception that technology growth was all-pervasive and accelerating. This perception had implications for community technology. There came to be an increased acceptance of the need to begin to address access for those who had been left out. This led to greater government and foundation support for initiatives to bridge the digital divide. Even though the bloom has faded somewhat from the dot-com rose, we still feel the effects in terms of a growing need for improved basic skills, consistent technology training, and community commitment to ensuring technology access.

One of the basic misunderstandings of the term "digital divide" occurred because people believed it to be referring to the lack of access to hardware. This type of perception led Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell to compare the digital divide to the "Mercedes divide" want one, can't afford one. [2] Efforts to address the digital divide may have seemed to some as not much more than a desire to put laptops in the unemployment line. But in fact it did not take long for advocates within most community development initiatives to realize that the true division in access to technology opportunities went far beyond the ability to access hardware. As computers became more available in public technology settings such as libraries and community centers training and outreach became a clear necessity. In some neighborhoods, computer use was seen as "women's work" because an aunt or sister used one at her job. Classroom technology might sit idle because teachers were not trained and could not integrate technology use into their classroom goals. Seniors and adults from low-income segments of society often had no exposure and therefore no idea of how to even begin to use computers and the Internet. If surveyed, they would simply state that they had no interest in technology.

[2] As quoted in Clewley [2001], Powell stated on February 6, 2001, "I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can't afford one."

As the results of corporate excess and hubris ripple through the economy, this is a good time to examine the enormous accomplishments achieved by groups of local nonprofit visionaries whose creative energy and dedication to equity of access to technology continue to overcome woefully inadequate financial resources. Despite decades of shoestring budgets and dependence on volunteer labor, the numbers continue to grow of people who are gaining confidence, job skills, literacy, and independence due to community technology efforts. It is our belief that the business world could learn quite a bit about maximizing resources from this effort but that is the topic of another book.

Access to technology, delivered through various locally determined methods within community settings, has improved since the Department of Commerce issued the first Falling through the Net report in 1995. Subsequent follow-up reports show increased access to technology and knowledge of basic computer and Internet skills by previously disenfranchised groups. "Nonetheless," the executive summary of the 2000 study reports, "a digital divide remains or has expanded slightly in some cases, even while Internet access and computer ownership are rising rapidly for almost all groups." [3] The August 2000 data show that persons with disabilities are only half as likely to have access to the Internet as those without a disability: 21.6 percent compared with 42.1 percent. And while just under 25 percent of those without a disability have never used a personal computer, close to 60 percent of those with a disability fall into that category. Within this group, people who have impaired vision and problems with manual dexterity have even lower rates of Internet access and are less likely to use a computer regularly than people with hearing and mobility impairments. This difference holds in the aggregate, as well as across age groups.

[3] From the 2000 Falling through the Net report, accessed May 28, 2002, at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide/execsumfttn00.htm.

Serious barriers to access for people with disabilities remain and are central to current digital divide challenges. In February 2001, President George W. Bush announced his administration's New Freedom Initiative, in which he recognized that this nation must do more to fulfill its obligation to citizens with disabilities. He emphasized the important role that communities had to play in meeting that obligation. "The United States," he said, "is committed to community-based alternatives for individuals with disabilities and recognizes that such services advance the best interests of Americans." [4]

[4] As quoted in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [2002].


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    Maximum Accessibility(c) Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    ISBN: 0201774224
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2002
    Pages: 128

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