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Standards body pushes accessibility online

A major standards body issues draft guidelines for designing browsers and other Web-based user interfaces to make the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

Advancing its initiative to make the Web more accessible to people with disabilities, a major standards body has issued draft guidelines for designing browsers, multimedia players and other Web-based user interfaces.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the candidate recommendation for its User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 1.0. The guidelines are poised, following the candidate phase, to join two other W3C accessibility recommendations, one for designing accessible Web content and the other for authoring tools.

The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is nearing the completion of its tripartite system of recommendations as making the Web accessible becomes an increasingly urgent task for site creators, authoring tool makers, and browsing software vendors.

Federal Web sites, for example, must conform to Section 508, a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that requires technology procured by the federal government to be accessible to people with disabilities. The section also states that Web sites maintained by U.S. departments and agencies must be accessible.

The W3C's proposed guidelines, first issued as a June 1998 working draft, outline for interface designers pitfalls that could prevent people with disabilities from using certain functions.

The guidelines designate three levels of priority. Priority I problems are those that could prevent someone from using a feature. Priority II problems would have a "substantial impact" on use by a person with a disability. Priority III items are problems that, if fixed, would facilitate use by someone with a disability.

One of the guidelines' principal concerns is the computer keyboard, where people with both visual disabilities and repetitive strain injuries may not find helpful workarounds. For example, the guidelines urge user interface designers to provide ways for people to navigate using the tab key, rather than a mouse and cursor.

Another recommendation is that browsers and other user interfaces be made compatible with Web content accessibility functions, such as the inclusion of a screen-reader-friendly alternative or "alt" text behind graphics.

The guidelines recommend that people be given some degree of control over the user interface's appearance. This could improve accessibility for color-blind people.

In an attempt to ensure interoperability between Web user interfaces and devices such as screen readers, the guidelines recommend that user interface designers use common APIs (application programming interfaces), or common methods of making requests of an operating system or another application.

Some of those interfaces are standardized, such as the W3C's own DOM (document object model), which makes elements on a Web page interactive with scripting and programming languages. But many are not, so the standards organization also refers authors to various proprietary technologies, including operating system conventions already set up to help designers do things such as substitute visual cues for beeps.

The W3C said it had not set a firm deadline on the guidelines' graduation to final recommendation, but said it is aiming for year's end.