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W3C, others seek accessible Web

There are 54 million people in the United States with disabilities, so it's no surprise that better access to Web sites is a goal being sought by both federal and voluntary efforts.

When Doug Wakefield calls up a Web site, his experience is not enhanced by flashy video clips or gyrating animations.

Wakefield, who is blind, is more impressed by the engineering behind a site.

If a site is built right, he can wade through articles, search for information, and make purchases. However, if a site doesn't consider that some visitors are hearing, visually, or physically impaired, it could be turning away scores of users like Wakefield.

"If a site is accessible, it gets my dollars," said Wakefield, who happens to be the technology specialist for the U.S. Access Board, an independent agency created in 1973 that issues accessibility standards under federal law.

In the United States alone there are 54 million people with disabilities, according to the U.S. Census, so it's no surprise that better access to Web sites is a goal being sought by both federal and voluntary efforts.

As soon as this week, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards body is expected to release final technical guidelines to help page authors make sites easier to use for those whose access is impaired.

"Our guidelines have been developed through an international, industry-based consensus process to come up with a reference people can trust," said Judy Brewer, director of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative.

On May 11 the Access Board's Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee also is set to finalize its recommendations regarding accessibility standards for electronic and information technology covered by a little-known 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act, section 508. Then the full board is scheduled to start a formal rule-making procedure by August to implement the provision.

Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology "developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities."

The section also states that Web sites erected by the federal departments and agencies must be accessible to people with disabilities; in other words, they must take steps such as assigning text tags to graphics so they can be recognized by screen readers that are employed by visually impaired computer users.

Contrary to some published reports, section 508 does not apply to Web sites created by companies that do business with the federal government.

"It does not apply to recipients of federal funds and does not regulate the private sector," states the Access Board's section 508 FAQ.

Still, public service entities that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers more than just government agencies, are expected to make their Web sites accessible.

"Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet," states a September 1996 interpretation of the law by the the Justice Department.

Although the ADA and section 508 don't directly apply to the private sector, advocates hope the W3C's standards and the Access Board's final rules will trickle down to the commercial online world.

Firms that are vested in the Net, such as Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, are members of the Access Board's advisory committee and W3C, and their stance is expected to impact the broader industry.

"Companies should see this as an opportunity," Brewer said. "Given that the technology sector is so heavily competitive, companies that ignore this market slice are doing themselves a disservice."

Others could benefit too, Wakefield added.

"Sites that are more accessible also load faster for people who have low bandwidth," he said. "It would be nice if every site was accessible overall."