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The Digital Beat v.2 no.26, 03/10/2000

The Digital Beat

Vol. 2, No. 26, March 10, 2000

By Jamal Le Blanc & Rachel Anderson

Access and Accessibility

Disabilities and the World Wide Web
Components of Accessibility
Obstacles to Full Web Accessibility
Legislative and Regulatory Policies

I. Introduction

The discussion of the digital divide employs the concept of information "haves" and "have nots." This definition, which often focuses on the issues of race and economics, has in many ways helped popularize the concept of the digital divide. However, when one speaks of the particulars of technology inequity and attempts to devise solutions, continuing to define the digital divide by economic and racial "haves" and "have nots" is not entirely appropriate.

Instead, the digital divide is better represented as a continuum of divides. This continuum recognizes that access to technology does not and should not automatically imply accessibility. "Accessible" and "accessibility" is distinguished from "access" in this way: access is being able to get to a computer for its use. Access focuses on the availability of hardware, software, infrastructure and -- in the case of libraries and community technology centers -- service hours and trained staff. "Accessibility" refers to whether or not the technology allows end-users to make use of the technology. Just as technology skills and relevant content are integral components to bridging the digital divide, accessible design for people with disabilities is essential to making the Internet truly universal.

II. Disabilities and the World Wide Web

The World Wide Web offers enormous potential for civic engagement, education, information, and employment. But for all Americans to benefit from the promise of the Internet, Web sites and the information contained within must be made accessible to all people. The disabled, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed, are often a marginalized group in our society. The Internet is a boon because the digital nature of information and ready access to computers frees them from the restrictions of physical retrieval. New information and communications technologies can improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, "but only if such technologies are designed from the beginning so that everyone can use them," said President Clinton in a letter in support of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Unfortunately, there exists a range of challenges built into the technologies and the current employment of them. For example, for the visually impaired - those who have low or hazy vision, nearsightedness, tunnel vision, colorblindness or severe case of astigmatisms - multimedia presentations, small type faces, low or poorly contrasting color schemes and small icons can make using electronic media difficult. As there is no existing standards to which commercial Internet sites must be designed - and no oversight body to regulate design - many visually impaired users can be shut out of a potentially useful Web site because of poor design elements.

Those with physical impairments, such as multiple sclerosis, palsy, or various forms of arthritis may find the task of manipulating a mouse, typing, dual-key keyboard commands, and mouse/key combinations difficult. Those with severe mobility impairments must employ assisted Web navigation using expensive and experimental navigation equipment.

Those with hearing disabilities may not be able to distinguish audible computer prompts, make use of online video, or participate in online presentations that make use of auditory elements.

Still others, with less severe restrictions may find the task of highlighting, mouse clicks and manipulating pull-down boxes difficult.

The stakes of Internet accessibility are great. While some are born with a disability, many more people experience disabling impairments as they grow older, significantly increasing the percentage of those with a disability as age increases. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 1995 that at the end of 1994, 20 percent of the population, about 54 million people, had some level of disability. Approximately 10 percent or 26 million people had a severe disability. Worldwide it is estimated that 500 million have a disability of some type.

Components of Accessibility

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) addresses accessibility on the level of core technologies, develops guidelines for design, builds tools, monitors research and sponsors outreach and education programs. The WAI has published two style guides to accessible Web sites and is completing a third. It is the position of the WAI that Web accessibility should be seen as inexpensive in building new web pages and redesigning old ones. As the W3C is concerned with maintaining Internet interoperability across computer system platforms and software, accessibility is also seen as a natural part of the move toward palm-top and alternative Web access systems.

On February 9, 2000, in a statement before the House Judiciary committee, Judy Brewer, Director of presented a three-level definition of accessibility that is useful for this discussion:

Content: Designer level

Many, but not all solutions are at the content/Web designer level. The choices that Web page designers make about multimedia use, font sizes, color schemes, image placement and background patterns can have a big effect on how useable their pages are for disabled users. Many resources exist to aid Web designers in their accessibility strategies, including the WAI's user guides and corporate web pages such as Microsoft's Accessibility pages. (

Most of the solutions designers can incorporate are both affordable and considered just plain "good coding." For example, red text on a black background is nearly impossible to perceive for those that are colorblind or have low vision. An example of "good coding" that dramatically enhances a page's usability is the use of "ALT" tags, alternative text descriptions, with images. Their use is a standard and simple way to make an image file accessible to the screen reading software that the visually impaired use.

In recent debates over the applicability of the American with Disabilities Act to Web design, opponents have argued that requirements to make Web pages accessible would put an onerous burden on designers. Accessibility advocates, however, argue that when designers take disabled access to their sites into account during the design stage, creating an accessible page is no more difficult than designing the page in the first place. Most web tools will prompt designers to enter accessibility codes, such as ALT tags. Products such as Allaire's Homesite will even tell a Web page builder that> they have made a mistake if ALT tags are not used.

Technologies: Protocol level

A whole different set of accessibility solutions applies at the protocol level of technology - the core code used in Web pages and browsers. The Web is a cross-platform medium because browsers, Web servers, and routers recognize - and agree on - basic forms of communication which are called "protocols". Protocols of various types explain the form of Internet communication, the means by which it should travel and what should be done with the information when it arrives at its destination. URL's designate addresses, HTTP designates a means of information access, etc. In this same sense, there are core-level Web protocols that allow for closed captioning of multimedia streams such as RealVideo. As the Internet becomes accessible through a range of devices such as phones, cars, and even toasters the protocols that enable these new technologies must also incorporate accessibility standards.

Digital television, for example has the potential to more easily carry closed and open captioning. The digital format would allow for both a text and audio description stream simultaneous with the standard multimedia streams. A broad standard for this will have to be adopted to allow for easy and voluntary participation. The same recognition applies for adapting new technologies to existing assistive technologies such as screen readers that either read Web pages aloud, or turn them into Braille. Widespread acceptance of accessibility guidelines is an essential step in fully including all who would participate online.

The WAI is working for the acceptance and perpetuation of protocols that allow for captioning of multimedia presentation, the recognition of ALT tags and the like in the languages used in handhelds and other alternative web technologies.

Tools: Browser level

Still other solutions apply at the level of Web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, or Opera. Support for keyboard commands and mouse commands are the bare minimum. Browser level support also includes documentation on how to used the accessibility features, providing keyboard support for mouse commands and full support for protocol-level technology.

Browser level accessibility also extends to interface design and support for the assistive technologies (screen readers, light pens, magnifiers) employed by the disabled, as well as, easily-locatable directions on how to use accessibility features that are built into browsers.

III. Obstacles to Full Web Accessibility

Cost and Difficulty

The most often cited argument against Web accessibility is cost. It is important to note that existing Web content accessibility guidelines are not requirements, they are guides for good design. Most accessibility guidelines reflect that not all pages require the same level of accessibility. The WAI's guidelines are prioritized by importance, so that developers can see the most important - and simple solutions first. Building in accessibility for most pages is a matter of degree and is not particularly costly or difficult.

On more complex sites, those generated by databases, the scripts which generate the pages can be set up to account for accessibility guidelines - actually proportionately driving down the cost of implementing accessibility standards.

The costs of captioning a multimedia presentation is relatively low compared to the cost of the production itself. However, the challenges of obtaining copyright permissions to retro-fit existing presentations can be extremely difficult. Those designing multimedia presentations should consider their options when in the design process. As mentioned earlier, the RealAudio and RealVideo formats support captioning. Designers and producers should be aware of these options when setting out to design material.

The Obstacles and Myths

Several misunderstandings, obstacles and myths have hampered the full uptake of accessibility strategies.

The National Council on Disability wrote in 1998 that, "the most significant barriers preventing people with disabilities from achieving full and equal access to multimedia products are lack of knowledge and awareness among multimedia companies and the market they serve concerning access issues, the costs involved in developing access solutions, and technological challenges."

This lack of knowledge has given rise to some widely held myths. The first myth is that accessibility means a text-only version of all web pages. In fact, graphics on web pages are not a hindrance to accessibility. It is unlabeled (ALT tag) graphics and graphics-only systems which present problems. The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines "strongly discourage the use of text-only pages for accessibility." However, when there is a need for text-only pages, current authoring tools (including Powerpoint!) give the option of a text only feature. Database-driven sites, again, can also be configured to generate text pages.

The second myth is that every page that exists will have to be torn down and redone. This too, is not entirely correct. While many organizations will have to redo their Web pages to make them accessible, many go through periodic revamping of their Web sites, anyway. These times are the moment to address accessibility issues. Even the current discussion over the application of the ADA to the Web focused on classes of Web sites, instead of the entire Web in general.

Finally, the myth that accessible web pages will put small and medium-sized e-businesses out of business. There is a market incentive to make pages accessible. With such a large portion of the wired world having a disability, e-commerce designers that fail to account for the size and buying potential of this group are effectively denying themselves entire markets of consumers.

IV. Legislative and Regulatory Policies

It is unlikely that accessibility issues would receive "mainstream" attention if not for the efforts of disabilities advocates. Federal law, as far as it goes, has helped their cause. In 1998 the Rehabilitation Act of 1990 was amended to include Section 508. Section 508 covers two key issues. First, it requires federal agencies that develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic information technology to make that technology accessible to disabled federal employees. Secondly, it requires that the technologies be accessible to disabled members of the public. The section covers Web sites put up "by about 105 federal departments and agencies," according to a November, 1999 New York Times article. The administration recently announced that every federal department will make its Web presence accessible by the end of the year.

Section 255, Access by Persons with Disabilities, of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, places the burden of regulating access by persons with disabilities on the FCC. The FCC's Disabilities Issues Task Force Web page ( opens with this greeting from Chairman Kennard:

"People with disabilities must have equal access to the information age; the Federal Communications Commission has an obligation to ensure that telecommunications are accessible and usable to the 54 million Americans with disabilities. Equal telecommunications access, by breaking down barriers and accelerating progress towards full participation, is critical to our nation's success. The curb cut to the twenty-first century is technology and every American should have equal access to this tool."

However, much is left to be done within the purview of these two pieces of legislation. In addition, copyright barriers that restrict or hinder captioning and video description should be lowered.

V. Conclusion

The disabled, already underserved in many ways, are being kept from using potentially quality-of-life enhancing Web technologies. The steps needed to enable their use of these technologies are not onerous, but do take the continued participation of many groups on several levels on interaction.

Government agencies, foundations and corporations should engage in collaborative research on the needs of multimedia and Web technology development that would support accessibility. This research would go a long way in developing awareness and highlighting innovative market solutions to accessibility challenges.

Finally, those agencies of government responsible for promoting and regulating accessibility compliance should continue to encourage voluntary participation in existing Web accessibility guidelines even as they look to include accessibility features as basic parts of developing technologies.

Accessibility Resources:

"Access to Multimedia Technology by People with Sensory Disabilities." National Council on Disability. (1998)

"U.S. Law Aims at Helping Disabled." New York Times. November 1999. (

W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative, (

Microsoft's Accessibility Pages, (

U.S. House of Representatives Commission on the Judiciary hearings on the ADA's applicability to the Internet Witness testimony, (

Yahoo! Fullcoverage News on the Disabled and the Internet, (

"Access to Multimedia Technology by People with Sensory Disabilities." National Council on Disability. (1997)

CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM)

WGBH Caption Center

WGBH Educational Foundation Descriptive Video Service¬ (DVS¬)

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