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Wanted: Web geeks for the disabled

Computer programmers and designers are needed to build Web sites that are useful to people with disabilities and to finish in an eight-hour rally.

Calling all do-good developers!

Organizers of a unique technology rally are looking for computer programmers and designers to build Web sites useful to people with disabilities. The first Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) California will be held on Sept. 21 at a San Francisco high school, and coordinators hope to make it an annual event.

The rally, hosted by CompuMentor and Knowbility, pairs nonprofit organizations in need of Web sites with groups of professional Web developers. About a dozen 10-member teams will be asked to build sophisticated Web sites that are easy for people with physical or mental disabilities to navigate--including people with visual impairments and those who cannot use keyboards or mice.

"A lot of people are getting on the accessible design bandwagon, so to speak," said Margaret Kelly, project associate at San Francisco-based CompuMentor, a nonprofit that helps schools boost efficiency through technology. "But there's still no Web police. Hopefully we can spread the word and get developers to think about accessibility on their own through the rally."

The rally, which has already attracted hundreds of volunteers, may also tap into a soul-satisfying void that technology workers and others in the Silicon Valley are increasingly striving to fill. Many programmers and executives spent much of the 1990s cashing in stock options after 90-hour workweeks, but many now say they'd rather use their skills toward social activism or noncorporate agendas.

The rally also comes as nonprofits awake to the power of the Web to reach supporters and disseminate information. The Oakland, Calif.-based Ruckus Society organized its first annual Tech ToolBox Action Camp earlier this summer, and the event's popularity took the coordinators by surprise. The weeklong training seminar taught hundreds of activists from around the world how to use computers and the Internet to better develop Web sites and improve e-mail communications to help promote their cause, be it ending police brutality or freeing political dissidents in Cuban jails.

California gets blast of AIR
The AIR California teams, which are still being assembled from Silicon Valley companies and individual volunteers, will attend a four-hour tutorial on the emerging niche of accessible Web design. Participants include San Francisco-based nonprofits such as the Center for the Blind and the Health Forum for Asian-Pacific Islanders, as well as groups specializing in performing arts, the environment and social justice.

Developers will be able to meet their nonprofit team members before the rally to discuss the style and architecture of the desired sites, but they must do all the programming during the eight-hour rally. Some nonprofits want to build sophisticated e-commerce sites and to collect charitable contributions, while others are looking to use the sites to publicize their events or provide links to other resources.

Judges--primarily experts in accessible design from IBM, University of Texas and elsewhere--will then rate the sites. Winners will be feted at an awards party in late September. The rally is similar to events that Knowbility hosted in Texas and Colorado.

AIR started with a small rally in 1998 in Austin, Texas. Developers at Sun Microsystems, IBM, Scient, MapQuest and other large technology companies have participated in rallies, and a similar event is scheduled for nonprofits and developers throughout Georgia later this year.

The goal of the rallies is not merely to build Web sites for nonprofits, Kelly said. Rather, AIR is trying to promote the idea of accessible design for the Internet at large.

Developers make the Web accessible in a number of ways. Visually impaired computer users often rely on a screen reader, which is software that provides either speech or Braille output of the text that appears onscreen and also provides mouse emulation through keyboard commands.

According to CompuMentor, only 2 percent of all Web sites are fully compatible with the tools disabled people use.

Accessibility lessons learned during the Rocky Mountain AIR contest stuck with the four-member team of Insight Designs Web Solutions. The Boulder, Colo.-based Web design company won the contest in December 2000, and it is still incorporating elements of accessible design into the sites of clients, including PepsiAmericas, the world's second-largest bottler of Pepsi products; athletic apparel company Hind, a division of Massachusetts-based Saucony; and the Saturn Cycling Classic bicycle race.

People with physical disabilities, such as paraplegics or those with severe arthritis in their hands, often require links or navigation buttons to be spaced far apart. They may find that close links or buttons are difficult to hit precisely with a mouse, especially if they're using a mouse adapted to move by their tongue or mouth. Insight Designs now makes sure to space navigation buttons on all its clients' sites so that physically impaired people can maneuver easily.

"It was a great educational experience," said Beth Krodel, who led Insight Designs to victory with an e-commerce site for Project Yes, an after-school arts activities program for at-risk teens. "Up until that time, we as a company didn't know much about accessible design and never really thought about the fact that, for example, blind people use the Web. We also learned that if you set an animated GIF to be at a certain flashing rate, you can send someone into an epileptic seizure. We're sensitive to that kind of thing now."

The company agreed to host the Project Yes site for one year after the contest, and then it is still making tweaks to the site and helping the nonprofit manage the site. But one of the biggest challenges for AIR is the maintenance of sites after the rallies.

"It's tough," Kelly said. "We don't provide a Webmaster because it's beyond the scope of what we can do. A lot of nonprofits already have a high-tech person on staff, and they'll work closely with the development team. But frankly some nonprofits don't even have PCs in their office, so we know this is a big issue."