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Help Web sites get some AIR

May 31, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsRegulation

My eyes have been opened to the need for Web site accessibility for all. Ironically, I had to pretend that I am blind for the message to sink in.

“Accessibility” means making facilities and resources usable by people with disabilities. In June 2001, new U.S. standards went into effect that require or encourage that IT resources be accessible. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all electronic and information technology purchased by federal agencies, or provided to the public by those agencies, be accessible as measured by a set of standards. This includes Web sites.

Your company might not be required by law to make its Web site accessible, but it’s a smart business practice. It’s also the socially responsible thing to do.

Web sites are accessible when they are designed to work well with assistive technologies such as screen readers or built-in operating system accessibility features such as enlarged fonts. If your Web site can’t be “read” by vision-impaired visitors, you could be losing potential customers. On the other hand, if your Web site is designed to be usable by people with no or low vision, you could gain loyal customers for life.

During a recent visit to the IBM Accessibility Center in Austin, Texas, I used several tools that read aloud the contents and navigation of Web sites and software applications. Using IBM’s screen reader program called Home Page Reader (HPR) and turning off my monitor, I sampled the experience of “reading” a Web site without being able to actually see the text and graphics on the screen. HPR uses voice synthesis to read content and present options, such as links to other pages or sites.

Using HPR showed me that very few Web sites are designed to be read aloud. Most Web sites are too confusing, or lack alternative text for graphics, or use poor techniques for spacing content on the page.

Large companies with big Web development budgets have an advantage when it comes to remediating or replacing inaccessible Web pages. They can afford the time and effort to make their pages or entire sites accessible. Unfortunately, small or public organizations such as government agencies, colleges, school districts, and nonprofit groups might never have the resources to improve their Web sites – yet these are often the sites that people with disabilities need to visit most.

Knowbility has stepped in to level the playing field for such organizations. Knowbility, a nonprofit in Austin, helps organizations make technology accessible to everyone. In addition to providing classes on designing a Web site for accessibility, Knowbility hosts a program called the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR). AIR features Web development events held in various U.S. cities. This year, I have the honor of being on the board of advisors for AIR-Houston, to be held Oct. 16.

AIR brings together teams of Web developers who compete to design “the best” accessible Web site for designated non-profit organizations. In exchange, the team members get free training in the latest tools and techniques of accessible Web development. Last year, AIR-Austin drew 30 teams of three to five people each. As a result, Knowbility gave more than 100 developers the skills to take back to their schools or businesses to propagate accessible Web design for other sites. But the true winners are the 30 non-profit groups that each gained a fabulous fully accessible Web site.

AIR can use your support. It needs sponsors, Web developers, non-profit and K-12 school participants and community volunteers. With a goal to expand into more cities and universities, Knowbility also needs bright IT professionals who can help launch more AIR events. Get more information at

If you need an eye-opening accessibility experience for yourself, download IBM’s HPR for free, and test it with your Web site. “Seeing” is believing in the need for accessibility for all.