Now let's assume that you've sold the client on the fact that yours is the best team to create an accessible achievement of their online goals. What next? You must ensure that your staff has the understanding and the resources to deliver the product you promise. They must believe in it and they must know how to achieve accessibility in an efficient and stylish way that will meet your company's standard for excellence. Let's look at some methods you might use to get everyone on the same accessible page.
Catapult Systems: Building Accessibility into Your Corporate Culture
The winner of the 2000 AIR for Austin was a team of four enthusiastic designers from the consulting, design, and development company Catapult Systems Corporation. Figure 6-4 shows the home page for this award-winning e-business firm. This dynamically generated corporate site provides clear navigation, textual information for all images, and the ability for visitors using screen readers to skip navigation and go to the main content of any page.
Figure 6-4. Figure 6-4. Screen shot of the home page of Catapult Systems. Accessed January 5, 2002, at http://www.catapultsystems.com. Used with permission.
For the Rally competition, the team was led by Matthew McDermott, an astute project manager who foresaw the potential for increasing his company's expertise and its ability to attract new clients based on its knowledge of accessibility. Matthew developed internal training sessions for the sales force, the project managers, and the consultants. The courses, based on the training provided to the AIR participants, extended those basic lessons to include training on how to sell and plan for accessibility and how to develop sophisticated applications that fulfill business needs while addressing the issues of accessibility. Catapult's state agency clients were introduced to emerging federal mandates and offered immediate accessibility solutions. Besides attracting new clients with its ability to deliver accessible design, Catapult also increased its contracts with existing clients. For this company, accessible design has become a core deliverable in its skill set, and this is paying off, modestly at first and increasingly as time goes by and the company's portfolio of accessible business solutions continues to grow.
Testing for Accessibility
Now that you have made the commitment and convinced your clients of the value of creating accessible online information, how will you know when you are successful? Testing for accessibility can begin in your own browser. You can turn off the graphics capability to see what information is available when images are eliminated. Specialized browsers can be helpful. Lynx is a text-only browser widely used by people with slow connections to the Internet. Opera is a browser that provides several easy-to-activate (and deactivate) options that will help you test your content under various conditions. Home Page Reader is a speaking browser that renders text to speech. There are also a number of automated accessibility verification tools and those numbers are growing. Some of the best work on the development of tools to aid in accessible design has been done by or in conjunction with the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin. Trace was among the first to develop guidelines for accessible Web design. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) used these guidelines when it developed its first online accessibility-testing tool, Bobby (see Figure 6-5).
Figure 6-5. Screen shot of the Bobby home page. Accessed January 3, 2002, at http://www.cast.org/bobby. Used with permission.
Recently Trace collaborated with the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Center to develop the A-Prompt Web accessibility-verifying tool. Let's look briefly at Bobby and A-Prompt for an idea of some available resources for testing and maintaining the accessibility of your site. We then offer some suggestions about accessibility verification in general that should help you determine how much of that task can be successfully automated. Some of that process will necessarily require human oversight, but for now, let's look at some of the most useful tools.
The Bobby home page contains an input form for submitting a URL for accessibility testing. Links at the top of the page provide use options, and the navigation section at the left of the page provides links to more information, history, pricing, and support. The page is illustrated with the smiling face of a bobby (the familiar term for a British policeman) wearing a helmet that displays the universal wheelchair symbol for disability.
You can submit a URL for online testing of one page at a time, or you can download a stand-alone version of the tool for testing multiple pages (such as large sites), including materials that are not yet posted to the Web. With the release of version 3.3 in December 2001, Bobby can check for compliance with Section 508 federal standards as well as conformance with the WAI's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. With this release, use of the online version is still free; the stand-alone version is now available for a nominal fee.
An important caveat: Bobby is a very ingenious product and a very useful place to begin checking your site for accessibility. Like all automated accessibility evaluation tools, however, Bobby requires a significant amount of manual checking to ensure accessibility. Fortunately, the tool produces a line-by-line analysis of the accessibility errors it detects. It refers to violations of specific checkpoints in WCAG 1.0 (the default) or the Section 508 standards. The tool also provides suggestions for how to remove inaccessible features and how to manually check items that Bobby is unsure of. If you have been wondering about the accessibility of a site you frequent, you might just run the URL through Bobby for an introduction to the barriers that the site may contain and the way Bobby presents information about them.
A consideration in retrofitting existing online materials for accessibility can be the time and cost involved in doing so. When access barriers are encountered in the design of an existing site such as missing ALT text or data tables without heading attributes it can seem tedious and time consuming to repair the code for each occurrence of repetitive errors. In making the business case for accessible design, we now can refer developers to automated repair tools that speed the process considerably.
The A-Prompt (Accessibility Prompt) Toolkit is available for download at no cost from the A-Prompt Web site at http://aprompt.snow.utoronto.ca/. A joint collaboration between the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto and the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin, A-Prompt is based on WCAG 1.0. Like Bobby, A-Prompt can be configured to check for compliance to different levels of WCAG, depending on user needs. A-Prompt version 1.05 and later can also be configured to check for compliance with Section 508 federal standards.
When it detects an accessibility barrier, A-Prompt displays a dialog box to guide the user to fix the problem. Many repetitive repair tasks, such as the addition of ALT text or the replacement of server-side image maps with client-side image maps, can be automated (see Chapter 9 for an explanation of why server-side image maps cause accessibility barriers). A-Prompt then assigns a Conformance ranking to the repaired file.
Other Automated Tools
Other automated tools and accessibility repair services are commercially available. A partial list appears below.
AccVerify is an accessibility checker by HiSoftware.
Lift for Dreamweaver is a product of UsableNet that helps developers accustomed to using Dreamweaver create usable and accessible content without having to learn a new software environment. Lift software is also available for a number of other applications.
SSB Software makes a pair of automated software tools: InSight for diagnostic purposes and InFocus for repair.
You can test accessibility features by using a speaking Web browser such as IBM's Home Page Reader or a screen reader such as JAWS.
ZoomText is a magnifying software program that you can use to test how your site will perform for people who have low vision.
It's important to make one or more of these evaluation and repair tools available to the developers in your organization or, if you outsource Web development, to make sure that the developers you hire have ready access to good evaluation tools. As with any other software, the tools we've discussed have different strengths and limitations, and in our work at the Institute for Technology and Learning, we've found that it's often best to use several of them in combination. (For information about other evaluation and repair tools, see Resources and Tools for Accessible Design in the appendix.)
Evaluation Tools Cannot Replace Human Judgment
It's important to bear in mind that these automated evaluation and repair tools don't and can't tell you the whole accessibility story; they're able to detect with certainty only a small fraction of the accessibility problems that might occur on your site. This means that the best way to use these automated tools is as a supplement to human judgment. National accessibility expert Jim Thatcher presents a very helpful analysis of how this works. On his Web site (http://www.jimthatcher.com/), Thatcher goes step by step through each of Section 508's provisions for Web site accessibility. He instructs readers about what automated verification tools can reasonably be expected to accomplish and what elements require human judgment.
We agree with Thatcher that verification tools are terrific for locating such things as missing ALT text (see Chapters 5, 7, 9, and 12), form elements without labels (see Chapters 7 and 10), and data tables without properly identified row and column headers (see Chapters 2, 5, and 11). And because these tools also point out places where manual checks and user reviews are required, they can help you identify parts of the site where including users with disabilities in usability testing may be most productive. When you come right down to it, there's still no substitute for live users!
With the best automated tools and the best will in the world, you will nevertheless not be able to meet the needs of absolutely everyone under absolutely all conditions. Staying current on universal design standards and gathering information about how people experience your site will ensure that your Web site serves as many customers as possible.
Many developers who attend Knowbility trainings say they struggle with how accessible their sites should be and which audience to use as the priority. To encourage them to broaden the usability of their sites to a larger population, we often remind the developers of the huge number of older Web browsers still in use. "But newer browsers can be downloaded for free!" they exclaim. "Why are people still using the old ones?" Limited hard drive space is one reason; limited budgets are another. Many schools, libraries, and community technology centers, for example, use donated computers that have less memory and less disk space than today's computers and slower Internet connections as well. The same is true of many home computers. It might be a good idea, then, to keep in mind this rule of thumb. Jakob Nielsen estimates that it takes approximately 18 to 24 months for new technologies to become fully distributed throughout the user population. If Nielsen's estimate holds for free software like Web browsers, the lag time for assistive technology which is definitely not free and is often quite expensive is likely to be even longer. Unless you're running a "bleeding-edge" technology business, then, where your reputation depends on using the latest and greatest, it's a good idea to avoid using techniques that require your customers to own bleeding-edge tools themselves.
But you don't have to just make assumptions and hope you get it right. You can take some proactive steps to find out what your users want and need.
Soliciting ongoing feedback from customers about your site and its usefulness is valuable in many ways: it can provide information that you and your developers need to improve your site and it can build trust among your customers. A blind user that we know found that a redesign of the Merrill Lynch site made it much more difficult for him to get the information he needed on his investments. Fortunately, Merrill Lynch provided an avenue for discussion of the new design and corrected the most significant barriers after receiving his input.
A feedback form on your site or an e-mail address for customer input can provide you with valuable understanding of how people are using your pages. It helps to let people know you are open to hearing about their experiences on your site. A simple line stating that you have thought about accessibility creates a great deal of goodwill that encourages people to provide feedback and useful suggestions. Several of the accessibility checkers we discussed, including Bobby and A-Prompt, will provide you with an accessibility icon to let your users know of your commitment to accessibility. And organizations that consult on accessibility, such as Knowbility, can also provide a statement and seal to certify the process you have incorporated to ensure accessibility.
Including People with Disabilities in User Testing
Of course, if your site has serious access barriers, there may be no way to receive feedback from people with disabilities, since many users will be prevented from accessing that opportunity. It is important to include expert and novice users with disabilities as part of any usability testing you do before you launch your site. These users can provide valuable feedback about the extent of any accessibility or usability problems. Professional usability testing firms, such as Austin Usability, routinely pay representative users to perform prescribed tasks as part of their systematic usability engineering services. Ensure that any usability team you hire incorporates the experiences of all users as they test your site.
If you are a small organization with budget constraints, you might consider creating a test group by contacting local agencies that serve people with disabilities and asking them to help you form a volunteer group to visit your Web site and provide feedback regarding the site's accessibility and usability.
There are many online discussion groups that center on human interactions with computer technology and the Internet. Two of those that might help you get in touch with people who use assistive technologies, as well as people who design Web sites and software with users in mind, are listed below. To access either of these groups, log on to http://groups.google.com and enter the discussion group name. Post a URL to the newsgroup to invite feedback about members' experiences on the site you are testing.
alt.comp.blind-users is a very low-traffic discussion group via USENET for people with site impairments using Internet technologies and those studying or creating assistive technologies.
comp.human-factors is a group for the discussion of human-computer designs and interfaces. The audience is primarily Web designers and graduate students studying human-computer interface (HCI).
Can You Satisfy Everyone?
Many people who have attended our trainings have said they struggle with how accessible their site should be. For instance, solutions that overcome barriers for people who use screen magnifiers may actually create barriers for some people with cognitive disabilities. So, while you should accept the fact you won't be able to completely satisfy everyone all the time, your commitment to universal design standards and accessible design techniques will keep your Web site serving the greatest number of customers possible, including growing numbers of users of mobile browsing devices. Maximum accessibility is, in fact, the wave of a very fast arriving future. The end result will be better Web experiences not just for people with disabilities but for everyone.