Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 9 October 2001

Table of Contents Subscribe Now! Previous Issues ITI Home
FEATURE  
How We Work to Make the Web Speak
by Susie Christensen

We can't conquer the whole Net, but we can make the Web speak, one page at a time.
For the first time in history it is now possible for many people with disabilities to get information right from its original source (rather than waiting for Braille translations, etc.). At least, now we have technology that has the potential to deliver this information from the source companies, if those sources choose to use it. 
 

The Webcenter Idea
I am the leader of the Webcenter at the Danish National Library for the Blind. It's our ambition to make information providers aware of this potential so they can make the best possible use of it. We try to spread the good news that it is not an insurmountable task to make Web sites accessible at an acceptable level, and that it does not have to cost extra to do so. (Especially if these issues are considered during the development.)

In order to make Web sites accessible to most people, there are a few steps you have to take. But since many people don't even know, for instance, that a blind person can use the Internet, these simple steps are very rarely taken when Web sites are designed. Here in Denmark, we don't have any legislation to ensure that disabled people will have access to technology (like Section 508 in the U.S.). The government occasionally calls upon technology developers to think about the accessibility issues, but until recently, this has been considered a very expensive and complicated task. To alter this view on accessibility, the Danish National Library for the Blind opened the Webcenter in January 2000.

At the Webcenter, our mission is to help organizations that create online information to make it all available to everyone. That is why we make an effort to teach the Webmasters, Web administrators, and other technology developers at the public libraries (and at other content providers) how to design solutions that are fancy, interesting, and accessible, all at the same time. We believe that when the competence to do so is in every public library, then the responsibility to ensure access will be there too.

When the public libraries provide accessible information on their Web sites, they realize that they have something wonderful to offer people with disabilities, people who may have never been motivated to use a public library before. And since libraries very often play an important role in their local communities, including people with disabilities is a very big step toward equal opportunities. 

The Danish National Library for the Blind (DBB, the abbreviation for Danmarks Blindebibliotek) is an institution under The Danish Ministry of Culture. DBB provides services and materials to the blind, the visually impaired, and others whose handicaps prevent them from reading standard printed material. (If you want to read about the Webcenter at DBB, we have a set of pages in English at http://www.dbb.dk/English/default.asp.)
 

You Can Make the Web Speak
As I mentioned earlier, there are some special aspects you have to take into consideration if you want a Web site to be accessible to as many people as possible and not exclude those with a handicap. The W3C organization works to make standards for the technologies on the Web. It has a Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at http://www.w3.org/WAI that has made a set of guidelines for ensuring accessibility on the Web. 

At the Webcenter we base our advice on the WAI guidelines. But we also base it on our personal experience from testing hundreds of Web pages with assistive software ourselves and from working with blind and visually impaired users. Here are a few examples of what Web developers need to realize:

A blind person usually uses a computer with some assistive software called a screen reader (in Denmark it's mostly JAWS), which can transform all text on the screen into either a speech synthesis (so the user hears the content on the Web site read aloud) or a Braille display (so the blind user can read with his fingertips). The fact that the assistive software can only transform text does not mean that you cannot use pictures on an accessible Web site. But it does mean that you have to put alternative text on the picture, or on any other non-textual element.

It is also very important that you don't have any functions on your Web site that can only be controlled with the use of a mouse. Blind people and many physically disabled people are completely unable to control a mouse. Therefore it should always be possible to access all functions with the keyboard.

If you use a picture as a link, or if you use any kind of link that doesn't have a significant name, you should give the link a title. The title is an attribute to the link element and it must tell the user where the link will take him. Be careful not to use titles like "Click here" or "See more," etc.

If you choose to use frames it is important that you give them proper titles and names. (In the WAI guidelines it is only mentioned that you should use the title attribute, but the screen reader JAWS only reads the name attribute.) 
 

Dotbot: Accessible or Not?
As another example of mistakes that can affect accessibility, I will tell you about a very fancy Web site for children: http://www.dotbot.dk. Dotbot is developed and maintained by a group of Webmasters from different public libraries and is their libraries' common offering for children. The contents are things like a Web guide for children, a quiz, a place to tell jokes, and other kids' stuff. This site is actually a very interesting and intelligent platform for children on the Internet, so we decided to test whether it was also available for children with disabilities.

We found several different accessibility problems, but I will mention one that I think is severe and a good example of what the consequences can be if you don't think about the access issue. One of the features is a quiz called "Kranieknuseren" ("The Skull Cracker"). The quiz is a form you have to fill out and answer three questions. If you answer correctly you can win a T-shirt. For each question there are three possible answers, and you have to mark the correct answer by choosing one of the three radiobuttons. You use arrow keys to move to the radiobutton you want to mark. This is very easy if you can see the screen and use the mouse. 

However, when you use the screen reader JAWS, it works like this: JAWS reads the question, then the first possible answer, and then tells you whether the radiobutton is marked or not. But JAWS thinks that the first radiobutton goes with the second answer on the screen. Why? According to the standard for designing forms, you must place a radiobutton before the text that it corresponds to. But in this case the radiobutton is placed after the choice, and so the screen reader will match up the wrong text to the wrong radiobutton. (It will see the second answer as connected to the first radiobutton, and so on.) Therefore a blind child has no fair chance to answer correctly and win a T-shirt.

This can actually be a problem in all kinds of forms if you are not able to see which text is connected to which input field. To prevent this problem you should always connect your input elements with the right text by using the HTML element <label>. The <label> element will ensure that the screen reader reads the right text for every input field. If you want to know more about how to use the <label> element, see http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10-HTML-TECHS/#forms-labels

These are a few examples of things that Web designers need to be aware of. They are not difficult to change, and doing it right can mean a world of difference to a lot of disabled computer users. 
 

Giving Hands-On Seminars 
In the Webcenter we have done a number of different things to impart knowledge about Web accessibility. One of our tasks has been to create hands-on seminars for Webmasters. We teach the participants to code their Web sites in a way that ensures their accessibility. One of the exercises in the seminars has been to let the participants experience their own Web sites as a blind person would "see" it on a computer with a screen reader and a speech synthesis. This is always a very enlightening experience and it leads to a very high motivation to acquire the basic technical skills needed to make a Web site accessible.

First our students test their own Web sites, and when they find problems, the instructors help them to amend the code. Then they test the fixed version with the screen reader and speech synthesis software, and are usually amazed how little they had to fix to make a world of difference. One participant was surprised to realize that the navigation bar on her Web site was totally inaccessible to the screen reader because she was using pictures as buttons in the menu. But it only took her 15 minutes to add the alternative texts to the pictures and the titles to the links, which made her Web site (or at least the front page) completely accessible. 
 

What Is the Net Saying?
To spread the information about accessibility, the Webcenter has also visited a great number of different library association meetings and other groups. In the beginning we had to invite ourselves, but now we are often invited to speak at different occasions. We always bring a computer with the assistive software so the participants can "see" for themselves what it is like to use the Internet as a blind person, and this usually has an excellent effect. People tend to find this sort of demonstration a lot more inspiring than a theoretical speech on accessibility.

This past March we promoted a campaign at the annual meeting of The Danish Library Association. We came up with the slogan, "What is the Net saying?" and used it on a mouse pad, postcards, and a folder with photos of a tennis net, a fishing net, and a man in a string vest (the word association makes more sense in Danish!). This concept pulled a lot of people to our booth at the exhibition, where they were allowed an opportunity to hear how their own Web sites performed with a screen reader. The demonstration made a great impact on the visitors as they began to understand what accessibility is all about. 
 

How Many Guide Dogs?
Another thing we offer in the Webcenter is accessibility testing. A Webmaster can ask us to test his or her Web site, and we'll do a report with an evaluation and some technical advice on how to improve it. We base the test on three things: the WAI guidelines, a specific test on a computer with assistive software, and a list of 25 checkpoints that we've developed ourselves as we gained experience from testing lots of Web pages.

We have invented a scale for the accessibility level when we do tests. A Web site can score from zero to five guide dogs:

Zero guide dogs = impossible to access
One guide dog = difficult to access
Two guide dogs = less usable
Three guide dogs = usable
Four guide dogs = suitable
Five guide dogs = excellent

Sometimes we also test Web sites on our own initiative. In the fall of 2000, we did a big survey on seven Danish library portals. The seven Web sites were all rather new and very popular, and we wanted to see if they were also accessible to the disabled users.

All of the seven portals only scored two guide dogs, which means that none of them met the needs of acceptable accessibility. But the tests also showed that in most cases it would be fairly easy to amend the problems. We gave the report to all seven Webmasters, and most of them have improved their sites or have promised to do so in the future. We plan to do a retest this fall to see if they have made any significant progress.

If you want to test your own Web site, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has a test tool called Bobby (http://cast.org/bobby). You can test your pages directly on that Web site or you can download the software. Bobby can be a good place to start, but remember that there are limits to how much such an automatic test can tell.


Here's a screenshot from the accessible version of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.  In the left frame you get links to the sections, in the right frame you get the headlines from the chosen section, and in the middle you can read the article you choose.  Since the frames have significant names and titles, the blind user is able to navigate in the electronic newspaper almost like a seeing person does it in the printed version.
Their Own Crisp Newspaper
The Webcenter also offers to develop concepts for accessible Web sites. Our biggest success so far has been to help a national Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) to make an accessible version of its daily online edition.

Before we did this, a blind person who wanted a newspaper would need to have it transferred into Braille, read aloud, or recorded on tape, with all the inherent delays. But since most newspapers are online today he actually has the ability to get a "crisp" newspaper every morning just like everybody else. That is, if the online newspaper has been coded correctly.

Since having a daily newspaper was a dream for many of the blind users at DBB, the Webcenter contacted one of the major national newspapers and suggested that it become the first to be completely accessible online. Its managers agreed to give it a chance when they realized that it would not be very difficult or expensive. An employee at the Webcenter developed the concept. Jyllands-Posten paid the Webcenter for the hours our employee had used. It took about 2 weeks to develop it, and then a month after they'd made the decision to do this, the new version was implemented and online (http://www.jp.dk/dbp/dbb). The accessible version is a true mirror of the original site, and it's possible to navigate easily between the sections and the articles even if you are blind. 

In the first 6 months there weren't as many visitors as expected. But one of the reasons might have been that Jyllands-Posten didn't have any link on its site to the accessible version. Another reason could be that the potential users had not yet explored the new opportunity. Therefore we designed a campaign and wrote about the new opportunity in seven different papers and magazines for blind and visually impaired people. Also, Jyllands-Posten finally put a link on its front page. The result was that the accessible version had 10 percent more visitors after the campaign, and I think the number will increase when more disabled people find out that the Internet has something to offer them.
 

Patience Leads to Progress
Patience seems to be a key word when you are working with accessibility. It takes time to convince the electronic information providers that it is worth thinking about. But if we look at the library Web sites today, they are in fact a lot better than they were a year ago. It almost seems to be a trend now--to ensure accessibility on your Web site is to signify that you are technologically in front.

But you also need to have patience with your disabled patrons. Many of them have been excluded from the fast stream of the information society for so many years now that they are not in the habit of recognizing that a library has something to offer them. Therefore it takes a lot of effort to make this group aware of the new possibilities that are available.

But little by little, we see progress. Accessibility is often mentioned together with user-friendliness these days, and even though they are two different issues, it is inevitable that the focus on accessibility will benefit us all, because an accessible Web site is usually a lot easier to use for everyone. 
 
Six Steps to Ensure Accessibility on Your Web Site 

1. Provide alternative text for all images and other non-textual elements (e.g. scripts, applets, and plug-ins).

2. Use unique titles for links if the link itself is not significant. For example, avoid saying something vague like "click here." 

3. Make sure that the structure and navigation mechanisms are consistent throughout the Web site.

4. If you use frames, give them proper names and titles.

5. Make sure that all functionality on the Web site is device-independent. For example, avoid functions that can only be performed with a mouse.

6. Use the <label> element for all input fields.

Accessibility Advice

For further advice on how to make a Web site accessible, please check these sites.

W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative: 
http://www.w3.org/WAI

WAI's Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0: 
http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT-TECHS

HTML Writers Guild's AWARE Center (Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education): 
http://aware.hwg.org

Bobby, the accessibility test tool: 
http://cast.org/bobby


 

Susie Christensen is the leader of the Webcenter at the Danish National Library for the Blind in Copenhagen, Denmark. She holds an M.A. in Scandinavian language and literature from the University of Copenhagen. Her e-mail address is scn@dbb.dk.

Table of Contents Subscribe Now! Previous Issues ITI Home
© 2001