Websites risk rights violations

People with disabilities could complain about inaccessible web sites to the Human Rights Commission.

People with disabilities could complain about inaccessible web sites to the Human Rights Commission.

Graham Oliver, an Auckland-based website developer with an interest in the challenges faced by those with disabilities, suggests this as one tactic to raise the profile of the issue of website accessibility. A complaint can be made that people with disabilities are not being treated equitably in the provision of services, as required by the Human Rights Act.

Awareness of the question is quite low at present in New Zealand, he says – lower than many other countries, such as Australia, where designing an insufficiently accessible site has been shown to be an offence under the Disability Discrimination Act. The Olympics organising committee (SOCOG) was fined $A20,000 when a blind man testified he could not operate its website.

A less forceful tactic would be to encourage New Zealand's government to take a lead in making public websites accessible, he says – as they were required to make public buildings physically accessible, “or, we could simply start building accessible websites”. Oliver plans to start a company to help build such sites and audit existing sites for accessibility.

One of the principles of an accessible site is to include text descriptions of graphic elements, so a voice-synthesiser or Braille reader can read something to describe the graphic and its purpose – eg “right arrow” – to a blind or partially-sighted user. Sticking to strict HTML standards is also recommended. "Assistive technology”, employed by users with disabilities to translate computer output, is designed to operate with standard HTML and may not manage a page with divergences.

Basic design principles like simplicity and contrasting colours may also help many non-disabled users, particularly those with slow modems or lines or older browsers, Oliver says. The concept also has to be sold to a commercial motive, he says. “People will ask: ‘what’s in it for me in making my site accessible?’”

One measure to improve interpretation by assistive technology is to separate content from presentation, by using such features as cascading style-sheets. XML, to name one emerging technology, is designed to work best with sites created on that principle.

Walking the web accessibility tightrope

Accessible websites are often simple sites amenable to low bandwidth, says Graham Oliver.

So what does he make of a recommendation in the international W3C Web Accessibility Initiative's guidelines, that a video of a person translating the text into sign language might be one way of making text accessible to people with some disabilities?

“Sometimes we have to walk a tightrope,” he says “between things that may be of help to some groups and will not be helpful to others” – like the rural dweller with a 14.4kbit/s modem.

Intelligible sign language, he confirms, requires a video rate of at least 12 frames/sec – beyond just about any dial-up modem. But the technology is always advancing, he adds optimistically.

The W3C accessibility guidelines can be found here.

W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, was created in 1994 by the web's creator Tim Berners-Lee to “lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability.” It claims a membership of 400 organisations worldwide.

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