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Who is Bobby

Printed in the September/October 2001 issue of the IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter. By Elizabeth Weise Moeller

If you work for a governmental agency or any other organization responsible for disseminating information to the public, you may have heard about the recent revision to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In a nutshell, any Information Technology (IT) procured by the federal government (or any agency with a federal government contract) after June 25, 2001 must meet the accessibility standards set forth by the Access Board. These standards are based on the long-standing Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Now that I have thrown all sorts of acronyms at you and confused you with the title of this column, it’s time to get to the meat. All of these acts and initiatives are in place to ensure that web sites developed by and for the federal government are accessible to disabled persons. For example, blind web site visitors will use text-to-voice converters to “read” a web site. The ability of these converters to translate the web site relies on the design of the site.

What Does Accessibility Mean?

First, a little background on web accessibility in the United States. For information on how other countries are handling web accessibility, visit the Policies page for the Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/). In the United States, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contained two sections that outlined the need for accessibility-Section 504 and Section 508. Section 504 establishes the “principle of programmatic access to federally-funded programs.” While it does not specifically recognize the Internet or World Wide Web, it lays the foundation for accessibility to these services (http://www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/). The recent revision to Section 508 addresses the Internet and the World Wide Web with regard to accessibility. In addition, it recognizes the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 and extends these requirements to state governments. Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it illegal to deny access to those with disabilities. In 1996, the US Department of Justice affirmed this in a letter to Senator Tom Harkin who was inquiring if a web-only business was required to meet ADA standards (http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/foia/tal712.txt).

W3C reports that between 10 and 20% of any given country’s population has some form of a disability. While not all disabilities affect those accessing the web, those with problems in vision, hearing, dexterity and short-term memory problems will have problems accessing the web (http://www.w3c.org/Talks/WAI-Intro/slide6-0.html). The vision disabilities are obvious and were mentioned above. Those with hearing disabilities are at a disadvantage when audio is used to convey information without including a printed transcript. Those with dexterity problems are at a disadvantage when a site design prohibits the use of voice-command software. Finally, those with short-term memory problems are hindered when a site’s navigation is unclear or illogical.

Accessibility means that a web site is designed so that text-to-voice converters can interpret your site. It means that visitors can use voice-command software can navigate through your web site. It means that your navigation is clear and coherent to prevent a “lost in space” feeling-a feeling often shared by those without short-term memory problems.

Accessibility does NOT mean you have a bland web site. Many accessible web sites are well-designed and graphically pleasing to the eye. W3C also reports that many web sites that meet accessibility standards are also more user-friendly for those without disabilities (http://www.w3.org/Talks/WAI-Intro/slide7-0.html). For example, audio with an accompanying text-based script is more useable to those in noisy environments or for those whose companies did not install speakers with their computer systems. It also helps to accommodate the many different learning styles.

How Do I Know If My Site is Accessible?

This is where Bobby comes in. W3C has identified three priority levels for accessibility. All web sites that must conform to ADA or Section 508 guidelines must meet Priority Level 1. Those that do not will be impossible for some groups to view. These web sites should meet Priority Level 2, at which some groups will still find it difficult to access information, but not impossible. Web sites may want to meet Priority Level 3, which means they remove all barriers to all groups. The complete content guidelines can be found at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/ .

Bobby is a product of the Center of Applied Special Technology (CAST). It is a free piece of software, downloadable from CAST (http://www.cast.org/bobby) that web developers can use to determine what Priority Level their web site meets. You can also use the online version as well. Bobby also provides explanations and rationales for problems it encounters and what a developer can do to improve their Bobby rating. Web sites that meet Priority 1 Accessibility can display the “Bobby Approved” logo on their web site.

A second way to check your site’s accessibility is to view it in Lynx, one of the original text-only browsers for the World Wide Web. There is a free Lynx viewer at http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html. The check here is to see if you can navigate through your web site, using Lynx, and still find the information you are looking for.
For the record, the IEEE Professional Communication Society web site (http://www.ieeepcs.org) home page is Bobby Approved. In the next issue, I will cover the accessibility guidelines in more detail.

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