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Disabled Net users win accommodations

An international standards body releases guidelines to make Web pages more accessible to people with disabilities.

An international standards body today released guidelines to make Web pages more accessible to people with disabilities.

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Content Accessibility guidelines include, for example, a "checklist" of techniques See related story: W3C, others seek accessible Webpage authors can use to support screen readers used by blind Net users, such as applying alternative text tags to graphics.

The guide also could improve surfing for people who access the Web via mobile phones or handheld devices.

"The bar has been set, and technologically it is not a very high bar," Tim Berners-Lee, director of W3C, said in a statement. "Some of the items in these guidelines will be unnecessary once authoring tools do them automatically. Now it is time to see which sites can live up to this."

Industry, disability organizations, and government drafted the guidelines, which were spearheaded by the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

"We are developing an online curriculum to take Web authors through the guidelines, giving examples of mark-up of tables, frames, animations, multimedia, and other features that create barriers when done poorly but are accessible when marked up correctly," Judy Brewer, director of the WAI, said in a statement.

In the United States alone there are 54 million people with disabilities, according to the U.S. Census, which prompted both federal and voluntary efforts to improve access to Web sites.

On May 11 the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee of the U.S. Access Board, an independent agency created in 1973, 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.

But section 508 does not apply to Web sites created by companies that do business with the federal government.