Vol. 4. No. 3 INT May 2000
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Creating A Universally Accessible WWW

Jim Duber
duber dot com

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

-- Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Creators of TESL/TEFL resources have welcomed and embraced access to an international audience afforded by the World Wide Web. However, with the availability of a global audience comes the responsibility of taking into account the abilities and special needs of all communities. While the ESL/EFL community has a history of being sensitive to linguistic needs, we now need to expand our reach to learners and users with visual, auditory, physical and cognitive disabilities that make certain aspects of the web inaccessible to them.

Recent advances in HTML standards and guidelines made available by the W3C under the rubric of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) are a large step in the right direction. Much in the way that closed-captioning brings access of television and video programming to the hearing impaired (and ESL learners), the W3C guidelines allow web designers to ensure that their materials are accessible by the widest possible audience.

The complete listing of W3C/WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are available at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/. The following is a brief explanation of a few of the main items:

  1. IMAGES: When adding an image tag in HTML, you should use the "alt" attribute to specify in a text format the content of all relevant images on a page. Visually impaired visitors and those who use text-only browsers (or surf with images off) will see this alternate textual content instead of the graphic element it represents. This feature alone goes a long way in converting a website from inaccessible to accessible.
  2. MULTIMEDIA: When adding audio, provide captioning and transcripts as appropriate. Video and animation require textual descriptions of relevant images. Interactive multimedia should have optional textual descriptions as well.
  3. HYPERTEXT LINKS: Graphical links (links activated when clicking on an image) should be accompanied by an alternate textual link. The text that is linked should provide enough context to be able to stand on its own. Many visually impaired users access the web with screen readers, which are devices designed to read onscreen text aloud. It's common for the screen readers to list links on a web page only when in "link mode" such that all other context is removed. As a result, links which say "click here" or are similarly vague are considered inaccessible and of very poor form.
  4. TABLES, GRAPHS & CHARTS: Because tables, graphs and charts can cause accessibility problems for the visually impaired, it's often necessary to include a textual summary which describes their content.
  5. CHECK YOUR WORK: There are a variety of tools available online to assist in the process of designing accessible websites. Among the most useful are the W3C's HTML Validation Service at http://validator.w3.org/, which helps ensure that the HTML you produce conforms to standards; and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) BOBBY validation tool at http://www.cast.org/bobby/, which helps locate real and potential trouble spots in your HTML from a universal accessibility viewpoint.

Other W3C/WAI Accessibility Guidelines not mentioned in this brief overview offer suggestions on how to treat accessibility issues that arise with the use of image maps, page layout and organization, frames and other such technical issues that typically confront web page designers.

The advantage of writing valid and accessible HTML is that you can be sure that your content will display consistently across browser and platform type and that all users will have equal access to your content. This seems like a reasonable and obvious goal. Unfortunately, the major authoring tools used by web designers don't build in easy support for creating accessible websites. Upcoming standards made possible by advances in XML technology should improve the situation drastically.

Here are some additional resources on issues of accessibility:

The Web Accessibility Initiative Home Page

List of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education (AWARE) center from the HTML Writers Guild

Articles and resources on ethical and legal requirements

WebABLE! is a comprehensive site for disability-related internet resources.

Additionally, there is an excellent article written by Molly E. Holzschlag on accessible web design in the December '99 issue of Web Techniques, "Web Accessibility with HTML 4.0." It is found online at: http://www.webtechniques.com/archives/1999/12/desi/.

Valid HTML 4.0!

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