Keys to access

Keys to access<@VM>Testing sites are worth a try, but reports might not enlighten

The lowdown

  • What are the incentives for creating accessible systems? It not only improves productivity, it's the law.


  • What are the basics of Web site accessibility? Use black-and-white text and background combinations and large, Roman fonts. Avoid frames and Flash; use simple lines to separate columns and sections'these can be very colorful. Use color outlines to highlight text rather than place text against solid color backgrounds. Always label every object with 'Alt' tags in HTML. If you must have a fancy site to impress someone, offer alternative, accessible pages with exactly the same information.


  • Price? It's often inexpensive or free. Microsoft products now include accessibility tools and there are many inexpensive or free programs that enhance older computers. Simple changes to the default settings in browsers will make the Web much easier to access, even if you just have tired eyes.


  • How can I test my site? UsableNet, Bobby, and other products or sites can analyze your Web pages and make recommendations. But be warned: they're not always accurate in their assessments.

  • Nextup Technologies' $25 TextAloud MP3 converts text to MP3 audio files.

    UsableNet Inc.'s Lift for Macromedia will test an entire site or a single page for Section 508 compliance. It's priced at $249.

    Opera Software's $39 browser includes instant zoom, which changes fonts, and full keyboard navigation.

    East Bay Technologies' $25 IM Speak creates audio files from the clipboard, text files and instant messages.

    Making Web pages accessible could be easier and cheaper than you think

    A key phrase in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 orders employers to 'make reasonable accommodations' for disabled employees and others.

    [IMGCAP(1)]The directive's purpose is clear but the words are vague enough to allow organizations to view making some accommodations as unreasonable. What makes an accommodation unreasonable? The shortest answer is cost.

    Budgets are tight everywhere, so installing a $10,000 magnifier system for an employee with only marginally poor eyesight could fairly be deemed unreasonable. But adding a $10 shareware magnifier utility to his computer can easily be justified just to make him slightly more productive.

    And in fact, you often can make systems and computers accessible to people with disabilities without spending a bundle, sometimes without spending anything.

    There are many little-known accessibility features built into Microsoft Windows, for instance.

    In Windows 2000, look under Start, Accessories and Accessibility and you'll find limited on-screen keyboard, text-to-speech and magnifier features.

    Windows XP Professional includes similar tools and adds a primitive speech recognition engine.

    There also are many shareware and free tools you can use to fix specific problems. Some of them are included in one of the accompanying charts.

    There are two aspects to making Web pages accessible: fixing your site and fixing other sites.

    Browser enhancements

    Good design makes your Web site accessible to the public and to people in other agencies, as ordered under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. That's covered later in this guide.

    [IMGCAP(2)]But you also need to make the entire Web easier for your own people to access'and most Web sites are not under Section 508's jurisdiction.

    There's a lot of bad design out there. We've all seen pages on which the webmaster has decided to use shades of blue for everything'for both text and background'or shrink type in favor of a graphical design, either of which can make reading text difficult.

    Wouldn't it be great if you could increase font sizes, get rid of low-contrast backgrounds or even change fancy fonts? Well, you can.

    Changing the way Web pages appear on your screen is not only possible, it's extremely easy. And it doesn't cost a dime. To make these disastrous sites easy on the eye, just change the way your browser interprets Hypertext Markup Language code.

    What you see on your monitor is not what a Web server sends. Except for graphics elements, most of a Web page is simply HTML code interpreted by your browser. If you don't like the way the page looks, tell your browser to interpret the code differently.

    To change the look of a Web site, you must edit the underlying HTML code and save the new code to the server. But to alter the way it appears on your monitor all you have to do is change the way your browser displays things like '#3366ff' (blue) or have it ignore the color codes entirely.

    In Internet Explorer, for example, you do this through the pull-down menu: Tools, Internet Options, General.
    Because various Web sites are best viewed using different settings, it's wise to teach users to alter these settings themselves.

    [IMGCAP(3)]A quick way to make most Web sites easier to view is to click on Accessibility, and check the 'Ignore colors specified on Web pages' box. Presto'that low-contrast background is now white.

    A more sophisticated control is the Colors button, which customizes the way text, links and background are displayed. Open this window and you'll probably find the Use Windows colors box checked. This lets the browser display the HTML tags using the standard Windows color palette.

    If you uncheck this box, you'll see sample text and background colors'probably black and gray. Click on the color box and Windows opens a palette with 48 basic colors; choose colors by clicking on them.

    You also can select fonts that your browser will use to override the ones specified by the Web page.

    To just change text size, choose among five default sizes ranging from Smallest to Largest in the View pull-down menu.

    Web page design'contrast

    Lighthouse International, an organization based in New York devoted to vision impairment and rehabilitation, has an excellent guide to good and bad color combinations, complete with illustrations. Check its site at www.lighthouse.org/color_contrast.htm.

    Here are a few basic design guidelines, taken partly from Lighthouse and from my experience:

  • Text should have the highest possible contrast with the background. Dark print on light background is traditional, but light text against dark background might actually be better.

    [IMGCAP(4)]
  • Black-and-white combinations provide the highest contrast and avoid any color-blindness difficulties, but for aesthetic reasons you may decide to use color text or background in some pages or parts of pages. If so, always make this text larger than you would for black and white.

  • Some typefaces are easier to read than others; save the fancy ones for wedding invitations.

  • Roman and sans serif fonts work best.

  • Bold is easier to read than regular type in any typeface.

  • Italics are harder to read than Roman.

  • Monospaced fonts are easier to read than proportionally spaced fonts.

  • When you need color to guide visitors, stick to the basics. Avoid red-pink and light blue-dark blue combinations, which turn up far too often.

  • Dichromatic color blindness is common, so avoid blue-yellow and red-green combinations.

    The Vischeck Web site, at www.vischeck.com, developed by two scientists at Stanford University, lets you check individual images or entire Web pages for how they will appear to people with some forms of color blindness.

    [IMGCAP(5)]Server-side scripting and the use of preprocessors are vital to maintaining accessible sites, especially when you are maintaining a visually attractive site alongside a truly accessible version. If you don't automate the update process, your work will double and the pages will never be in sync anyway.

    Web site management

    Preprocessors automate updates by adding macros and variables. The finished page is uploaded to the server. This results in the fastest-loading pages because it removes the update task from the server, which would otherwise have to process all the macros in each page at every load.

    Server plug-ins and scripts also automate updates but do so by embedding macros, variables and other dynamic page elements in the HTML pages. This approach offers less security and requires a lot more processing by the server.

    Whether you manage the site through preprocessing pages or update them live on the server needn't be a one-choice decision. The same tools often are used for both management styles and you can even mix solutions. For example, items updated every few weeks might be modified using the preprocessing technique while some fast-changing data might be managed on the server side.

    John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com. If you want to see how accessible your Web site is, trying it on an online testing Web site is a natural step.
    There is useful information to be gained from online accessibility testing services such as Bobby, at www.cast.org/bobby, but use caution in analyzing the results.

    On my computers it's virtually impossible to view the results page Bobby generates, so I would rate Bobby itself as inaccessible, even to someone with no visual disabilities.

    There are other problems with these tests. For example, I tried the Temple University test engine, called Wave, at www.temple.edu/inst_disabilities/piat/wave. I used it on one of my sites, www.15767.com, a community development Web site that provides homework help and Internet safety guides for kids and parents.

    This site is not perfectly accessible, but it isn't too bad. Wave reported that nearly every element was inaccessible, mainly because Wave interpreted links, which were clearly active at the time, differently from the way Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator do.

    On the same page only a few of Bobby's recommendations were visible because it overwrites its reports on the original Web page.

    Look again, Bobby

    The comments were not just confusing. Some were, in my opinion, downright wrong. For example, my site was cited for 20 'failures to provide a summary for tables.' The site contains no tables.

    Just about every government and university site devoted to accessible design also fails Bobby or generates a complex report requiring a lot of interpretation. In fact, a Bobby analysis of the Bobby page itself reported more than 100 items needing to be checked for possible violation of accessibility rules.

    Temple's Wave 2.2, which is still in the alpha test stage, includes specific tests for Section 508 compliance, as Bobby does, but it is easier to understand.

    I don't find most of these test sites to be very useful. The reports are muddled and the recommendations are vague.

    One of the better test sites is UsableNet.com, which offers a sample online test. It also sells software to test sites and automates repairs using Macromedia Corp.'s Dreamweaver software. This site lets you specify the kind of site you have, presumably so it can apply different accessibility rules.

    Unlike Bobby, the UsableNet report is in plain English, complete with detailed suggestions on how to repair each problem. Many of the recommendations worked well.
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