Web Accessibility and Persons with Disabilities
Inherent to the purpose of the World Wide Web is equal access to its contents by all persons. From an even broader perspective, the evolution of the Internet has been built upon the ideal of leveling the information access playing field for all persons.
Since the Web’s inception, concerned designers have struggled with techniques and guidelines to make their pages accessible to a wide range of viewers. We have learned that there is a considerable gap in content accessibility between those with vision, auditory, and mobility impediments and those without such impediments. The gap between these two is closing, thanks to a new Federal law. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 requires that electronic and information technology be accessible to persons with disabilities. Section 508 also required the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) to set standards for compliance with the law.
Section 508 as an Aid to Web Designers
The Access Board standards provide an excellent set of guidelines for Web developers. (These guidelines are included in a subsequent section of this page.) The specific subsection of the law which applies to the University System of Georgia institutions is Section 508(a)(1)(A)(ii), which states that electronic and information technology be available to:
individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities.
University System of Georgia web designers should also be aware of Section 508(a)(2)(B):
REVIEW AND AMENDMENT.–The Access Board shall periodically review and, as appropriate, amend the standards required under changes subparagraph (A) to reflect technological advances or changes in electronic and information technology. Requiring the Access Board to review and amend standards introduces the possibility of new and different standards in the future.
Implications for University System of Georgia Institutions
While there has been some confusion as to whether institutions of higher education are affected by this law, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has determined that institutions under the Board of Regents fall within the scope of Section 508. States receiving funding under the Assistive Technology Act are compelled to comply. The state of Georgia receives funds through this act.
The immediate retrofitting of all sites is not mandated.  However, as new websites within the USG framework are developed, and existing websites are revised, Section 508 compliance is to be taken into account. Also, as a consequence of this ruling, the Georgia Web Group will give link preference to sites included in the “Featured Sites” section on the USG homepage which have an opening page (minimally) which passes Priority 1 accessibility as determined by an online accessibility validator.
Web Content Guidelines and Access Board Standards
Preceding the standards set by the Access Board is a set of guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Access Initiative (WAI).  These Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are prioritized on a scale from 1 to 3, with Priority 1 being a set of guidelines (or checkpoints) which must be satisfied or “one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document.”
WCAG Priority 1 guidelines greatly influenced the standards set forth by the Access Board; there are, however, some differences. These differences are noted following the listing.
The Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards developed by the Access Board are as follows:
(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content).
(b) Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
(c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
(d) Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
(e) Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
(f) Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
(g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
(h) Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
(i) Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
(j) Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
(k) A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
(l) When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
(m) When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with Section 1194.21(a) through (l).
(n) When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
(p) When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.
Paragraphs (a) through (k) correspond to WCAG Priority 1 guidelines. Paragraphs (l) through (p) are additions to the WCAG guides as approved by the Access Board.
Comments and Suggestions
Some Accessibility Validators only check for WCAG checkpoints. As a consequence, manual checking for other standards may be required since they cannot be verified by a computer.
Many pages will only contain a subset of elements covered by these standards. Following are specific techniques for addressing the most common accessibility barriers.
Paragraph (a): Use “alt” along with “longdesc” when providing text equivalents for images. Very long “alt” content is acceptable to the most common browsers and “longdesc” is not supported on all browsers. If spacer or decorative images are used, use an ALT attribute with a value of one or more spaces:
<img src="spacer.gif" alt=" ">
When using the “longdesc” attribute:
<img src="borlogo.png" alt="Image of BOR logo" longdesc="bor.html">
keep in mind that an external document is being referenced. This document should include a link referencing the page on which the image was included.
Paragraph (b) : An acceptable alternative to a multimedia presentation can be a web document which provides equivalent content. For example, the University of Georgia homepage includes a link to a promotional video. The video is introduced by an image which provides a pointer to a link on the same page with equivalent content.
Paragraph (d) : While it is true that documents should be readable without an associated style sheet, it is important to note that style sheets can be used to directly address accessibility barriers. As an example, this document has two style sheets associated with it:
<LINK REL="STYLESHEET" HREF="/second.css" TYPE="text/css" MEDIA="screen"> <LINK REL="STYLESHEET" HREF="/secondp.css" TYPE="text/css" MEDIA="print">
The first is for screen display and the second for printing. The style sheet for printing increases the font size. (As of this writing, the print media type is supported on Microsoft Internet Explorer but not Netscape.) As other media types (e.g, braille, voice, etc.) gain more widespread browser support, style sheets will become an increasingly important method to achieve a very high degree of accessibility.
Paragraph (f): Adding to the recommendation of using client-side image maps is a reminder to use the ALT attribute for the image. Use the ALT attribute when defining the areas of the image map. For example:
<AREA SHAPE="rect" coords="4,11, 96,29" href="bulletin/univ/index.html" alt="University Profile">
Paragraph (i): Frame titles can be added using the TITLE attribute:
<FRAME SRC="top.html" scrolling="no" TITLE="Menu Bar" NAME="Menu Bar">
The following example is from the University of Georgia (UGA) homepage:
Paragraph (m): See the Access Board Final Rule for the complete text of Section 1194.21.
Accessibility Validators and Tools
Accessibility validators and tools allow web designers to test their pages for accessibility barriers and, in some cases, provide tools for eliminating these barriers. The most widely used tools include:
- WAVE - Section 508 compliant. Performs an analysis of tables to insure that table elements are logically presented. Developed by the Pennsylvania’s Initiative on Assistive Technology.
- UsableNet - UsableNet provides a number of software tools that allow web designers to automate website accessibility and usability testing, repair and delivery.
- access.adobe.com - This site is a valuable resource for web designers who use Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files. It includes information on accessibility issues regarding Adoble Acrobat and an online conversion tools to convert PDF files to HTML or plan text.
- CSS Validation Service - Although not directly related to accessibility validation, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) should also be validated. Developed in conjunction with the World Wide Web Consortium.
A listing of evaluation and repair tools for web content accessibility is maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative. The list includes validators for CSS and HTML in addition to accessibility validators.
- Section 508 Home Page. There are several Section 508 “homepages”; however, this one from the Department of Justice includes a number of other interesting and related links.
- The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (The Access Board) Section 508 Final Rule. The standards as related to Web-based information are added as part 1194.22 to Chapter XI of title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
- Section 508 Facts: Understanding Section 508 and the Access Board’s Standards. A specific statement regarding retrofitting is included in this guide.
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). A set of guidelines explaining how to make Web content accessible to those with disabilities. Related information is available at the website for the WWW Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative.
- 1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications. A comprehensive look at the Access Board standards. Provided by the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. [No longer accessible via the Web.]
- Cascading Style Sheets, Level 2. The definitive specification, including information on media types – screen, print, aural, and more.