posted March 28, 2003

 

There are many Canadians who require adaptive technologies that modify their computer workstations to enable access to the Internet or other computer-based resources. Voice recognition systems, screen readers and alternative keyboards are a few examples of the enabling technologies used by people with disabilities. It is important for government web developers to consider how design decisions will affect accessibility for a wide range of users. Some may have needs related to a specific disability, while others may be limited by the technology, such as older browsers, non-standard operating systems, slow connections, handheld devices or text-only screens. With rapidly emerging standards and new database driven systems for content management, web authors may unknowingly implement design elements that, in the end, actually impede rather than enhance access for computer users with specific needs or preferences.

Government Initiatives

A growing international understanding of the importance of inclusive design practices is evident in the recent implementation of Canadian federal legislation and policy based on established guidelines. The Treasury Board of Canada has introduced The Common Look and Feel (CLF) initiative requiring all government resources to be accessible to users of a "wide range of technologies, including personal computers, assistive devices, and advanced technologies."../../../../../ The client-centred approach of this legislation specifies universal accessibility standards directed toward ensuring equitable access to all content on Government of Canada Web sites. The policy outlines specific standards to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities who use adaptive technology to interact with their computers. Hence web authors and programmers working at all levels of government and the public sector will increasingly need design skills and strategies to ensure access to technology-based services for all Canadians. Development grounded on principles of inclusive design will ensure that web resources will be navigable using a range of input and output modalities, depending on the user's preferences. Transformability, ease of navigation and usability are all critical success factors in designing a Web site that is broadly accessible to users of a range of technologies. At present, the internationally recognized leader in establishing accessibility guidelines for web page authoring is the Web Accessibility Initiative(WAI), a sub-committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)i. The WAI coordinates many organizations that have developed Web accessibility guidelines in the past, in order to develop a comprehensive and unified set of accessibility guidelines. The most recent set of authoring guidelines categorizes, by priority, elements and formats to avoid and recommends possible redundancies or alternatives, in an attempt to establish universal standards for accessible Web design. The WAI guidelines and resource documents are available at http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/ The Treasury Board anticipates that the WAI guidelines will "evolve over time", as developers and users become more proficient in applying new technologies to Internet usage.

General Principles:

The following are some general principles of accessible design which are supported by the WAI guidelines:

  1. Use structural elements as they were intended.

    One of the greatest barriers to accessibility is inappropriate use of structural markup to achieve visual formatting effects. Using markup improperly may create a barrier preventing users with specialized software from understanding the organization of a page, and navigating through it effectively. Web designers may be tempted to use structural markup to achieve a desired formatting effect, especially for viewing with older browsers. Common practices include use of tables for layout or a header to change the font size. It is important to consider whether the formatting effect is so critical as to warrant rendering the page inaccessible to some users. A better approach is to use markup such as TABLE, UL, BLOCKQUOTE, etc. as it was intended. This accommodates users of adaptive technology, as well as users of new, mobile and portable handheld devices.


  2. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.

    When providing information in graphical or auditory formats, be certain to include alternatives for those who have sensory impairments or are unable to access these resources for any reason. A simple example is the use of the "ALT"../../../../../ attribute, of the <IMG> tag, providing an alternative text for users who are not displaying graphics. This will accommodate learners accessing Web resources with a screen reader, with graphics turned off because of low bandwidth issues, or those who are using devices which display text only. Scripts, sound files, objects, java applets, and other interactive components should also be rendered in alternative formats.


  3. Add accessibility features to ensure pages can be navigated by keyboard only.

    Again, remember that not all users can use, or will be using a mouse to navigate your Web pages. Good Web design means that the page can be accessed using only a keyboard or voice commands. Common pitfalls include use of image maps without ALT tags for each "hotspot." You can also use HTML 4.0 features such as ACCESSKEY and TABINDEX to make your pages easier to navigate using only a keyboard.


  4. Ensure graceful transformation.

    With some effort, Web designers can create pages that transform gracefully. Pages that transform gracefully will be accessible to a variety of users despite any physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities, work constraints, and technological barriers. Strategies already mentioned include separation of structure from format, providing textual as well as visual information, and creation of documents that do not rely on one type of browser or hardware. Pages should be usable by people using a keyboard, with small or low resolution screens, black and white screens, no screens, with only voice or text output, etc.


Standards and Guidelines

Standard 1.1 of the Common Look and Feel Accessibility Standards and Guidelines statesii that all Government of Canada Web sites must comply with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Priority 1 and Priority 2 checkpoints to ensure sites can be easily accessed by the widest possible audience. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, providing detailed information and techniques for implementation. These are available in full at the WAI Web site at http://www.w3c.org/wai. The CLF standards require government Web sites to comply with Priority 1 and Priority 2 checkpoints.

Evaluation and Repair

The Chief Information Officer's Branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat offers a Web Site Accessibility Testing Service (WATS) for Government of Canada Web Designers. Web authors or design teams can meet with experts on accessible design to review a specific site or set of resources to evaluate its compliance with CLF standards. Adaptive technologies such as screen readers and voice recognition are used to test the web pages, and specific strategies for resolution of any potential barriers are offered to support web authors in complying with CLF standards. WATS testing is conducted at Human Resource Development Canada's Adaptive Computer Technology Centre, located in Hull Quebec. For more information visit the WATS web site at http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/1/wats/wats_e.asp or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Another tool that will be valuable to government web designers is the Accessibility Prompt, or A-Prompt, developed by the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto, in collaboration with the TRACE Center at the University of Wisconsin. A-Prompt (Accessibility Prompt) is a software tool designed to improve the usability of HTML documents by evaluating Web pages for accessibility barriers and then providing developers with a fast and easy way to make the necessary repairs. The tool may be customized to check for different conformance levels, based on the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. If an accessibility problem is detected, A-Prompt displays the necessary dialogs and guides the user to fix the problem. Many repetitive tasks are automated, such as the addition of ALT-text or the replacement of server-side image maps with client-side image maps.

If you are seeking tools and resources to ensure that your pages are reaching the widest possible audience, the Accessible Design Resources listed below will be helpful. It is advisable to develop an understanding of the issues and to begin using validation methods at the earliest stages of development, and discover the problems before you are well into site construction. Accessibility issues identified early are easier to correct and avoid.

Summary

We are living and working in a time of great opportunity. Government agencies are increasingly using web-based technology to reach Canadians who may have previously been unable to access information and services, for reasons ranging from geography, to time commitments, to special needs. In particular, people with disabilities have access to resources that were previously unavailable to them. It is a time of great possibility, yet also a time to look to the future with care. The Government of Canada has taken admirable action in ensuring that our building of a new online service model begins with a strong foundation, firmly grounded on the principles of inclusive design.

Accessible Design Resources

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI):
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/.

Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/wai-pageauth-tech.html

Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto http://www.utoronto.ca/atrc

Accessible Web Authoring Resources And Education Center (AWARE): http://aware.hwg.org/

WebAim: The Web Accessibility "How-To" Site
http://www.webaim.org/

A-Prompt Toolkit
http://aprompt.snow.utoronto.ca



World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI):
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 Accessed in May 2002 at
http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/

iCLF - Accessibility Section of Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat - Government of Canada web site.Accessed in May 2002 at
http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/1/1_e.asp

iiWeb Site Accessibility Testing Service (WATS) of Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat - Government of Canada web site. Accessed in May 2002 at
http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/1/wats/wats_e.asp