Here are 15 tips to make your Web site accessible

Here are 15 tips to make your Web site accessible

BY STEVE GRAVES | SPECIAL TO GCN

It's easy to build a Web site that complies with Section 508 requirements. Simply limit it to standard Hypertext Markup Language pages, add a text description of all graphics and avoid any interactive or script functions.

But that won't cut it when your agency's audience expects Dynamic HTML and multimedia. With a little extra effort, it's possible to wow visitors with an attractive, contemporary design and still honor accessibility requirements.

To prove it, I designed three site prototypes that make liberal use of DHTML layers, tables, graphics and JavaScript. I based my designs strictly on aesthetics. Then I retrofitted them for Section 508.

Of course, it saves time and hassle if you implement 508 from the start. I simply wanted to see whether advanced pages could be made accessible after the fact'without sacrificing eye and ear candy.

I learned a few tricks. Some are technical, others are good practice, and still others are workflow aids:


  • Hone your HTML skills. If your site's HTML code complies with standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium, it will need little or no modification for accessibility. If you rely on code produced by any old what-you-see-is-what-you-get authoring tool, you're sunk. Most authoring packages now include text editors.


  • Get an authoring tool that displays code line numbers. Most Section 508 auditing software uses line numbers to point out accessibility problems. I prefer the HomeSite text editor from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, but almost any editor will do.


  • Design templates, not pages. Adobe GoLive, Macromedia Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage all have templates that automatically update pages. Before you start pouring in content, make sure the templates are completely accessible. You can then build pages with assurance that they will be, too.


  • Make sure any new content complies with Section 508. There's no use making templates accessible if the content is in violation. Luckily, templates almost always contain the JavaScript, layer and table features that need special attention for accessibility.

    Adding new content is generally a matter of pouring text into a table cell.

    But if you add a new image, include a meaningful description in the Alt attribute. It takes just a few seconds.


  • Think hard about the object description. If an object is required to understand the page content or layout, provide a text description of the object. That includes tables, links and images.

    Use null attributes if an object is invisible or doesn't directly contribute to understanding page content. Background images, dividing lines and null attributes are indicated within double quotes. Assistive devices skip objects with null attributes.


  • Give descriptions for all targets. If you use a Java script as a target for a link, provide a text description with the title attribute that states where the link leads.


  • Use fall-through rendering for embedded media such as Macromedia Flash and other multimedia files. There are two primary steps in making embedded file types accessible.

    The first is to institute all accessibility features within the files. If there's an audio track, you must have synchronized captioning.

    Once a presentation is accessible, embed the files as an object element using fall-through rendering, which is a method of stacking alternative information for users whose agents cannot access the primary file. Also, if your page needs a plug-in, Section 508 requires that you provide a link to a site where the plug-in can be downloaded.


  • Never use blinking, marquee or other auto-scrolling text. Blinking occurs at frequency ranges that can trigger epileptic seizures. This is the only absolute no-no in Web technology that can't be fixed with text descriptions or workarounds.


  • Use your authoring package's search-and-replace features to speed development. For example, find shim.gif and replace with shim.gif'alt=' to add null attributes to all spacers in one fell swoop.


  • If you're retrofitting a site, work only on a backup copy. Global find-and-replace saves time but can cause headaches if misapplied.


  • Make text descriptions meaningful but concise.


  • Check that database-driven sites are accessible. Don't feel buffaloed if your applications deliver dynamic data to static templates. Make the static templates accessible, and you've made 99 percent of the Web app accessible.


  • Check your work with a Section 508 auditing package. The most popular program by far is Bobby 3.2, a Java applet that spiders through your code, highlights problems and provides general solutions but no code examples.


    The Joint Forces Command's Web site, at www.jfcom.mil, has received the Bobby seal of approval.
    Bobby is free for download at www.cast.org, the site of the Center for the Applied Special Technology of Peabody, Mass.

    AccVerify from Hiawatha Island Software Company Inc. of Concord, N.H., also verifies code and reports errors. AccVerify produces a checklist for standards that can't be programmatically verified. AccVerify comes in a $99 version that integrates with FrontPage. Server versions cost more.

    Current users of Macromedia Dreamweaver and Dreamweaver UltraDev authoring tools [GCN, April 30, Page 43] can now install an extension downloadable from UsableNet Inc. of New York, at www.macromedia.com/resources/government. It checks for accessibility problems within selected sections, folders, pages or entire sites. The extension isn't perfect. For one thing, the report doesn't refresh after problems are fixed.

    The two best tools I've seen for Section 508 compliance come from SSB Technologies Inc. of San Francisco, at www.ssbtechnologies.com.

    The $1,500 InSight package lets developers customize test criteria for organization-specific accessibility requirements. SSB Technologies claims to have the only product that checks every accessibility standard. InSight gives detailed descriptions of each violation and recommends solutions using real code examples.

    If you must retrofit a large site or you frequently design new sites, take a look at the company's $2,300 InFocus multiplatform Java program. It is a full-blown Section 508 integrated development environment.


  • Drop the 'Bobby Approved' logo or other third-party seals from your site unless you get approval from your agency's legal counsel. Such images might be considered product endorsements.


  • Forget the priority 1, 2 and 3 compliance levels as reported by Bobby and other products. Priority 1, 2 and 3 are World Wide Web Consortium terms. But for Section 508, your pages are either in compliance, or they're not.



Software has limits

Software can't replace human judgment, nor can a complex set of regulations. A solid-color, tiled background image should be marked up with a null attribute. A logo used as a background image should get a meaningful description.

Some auditing products will flag items with null attributes as 'meaningless description.' Use common sense. Your goal is to make your agency's information accessible to all. Don't let the rules get in the way of giving disabled visitors the info they need and sparing them the info they don't.

Steve Graves, a former GCN reviewer, is chief engineer at Communications Resource Inc. of Potomac, Md.

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