Web site accessibility continues to grow in importance as more constituents with disabilities incorporate the Internet into their daily lives.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of the population in most countries has disabilities. The W3C said not all of those disabilities affect access to the Web, but problems with vision, hearing, dexterity and short-term memory can have a significant impact on a person's ability to use online information and services.
Solving access problems doesn't have to be a Herculean task; many states have taken steps to ensure their Web sites meet the minimum accessibility standards.
Start with the Consultants
Earlier this year, Connecticut's Department of Information Technology began requiring its IT consultants to undergo accessibility training; the ultimate goal is achieving universal accessibility for the state's Web sites.
Kathleen Anderson, webmaster for Connecticut's Office of the State Comptroller, said the training requirement covers consultants currently under contract with the state in a number of areas including Internet management, development and design, and application server administration.
Anderson said the training is intended to clarify Connecticut's expectations for Web site accessibility.
"Our feeling was that either consultants weren't sure what it meant to make a site compliant with our accessibility policies, or they thought we weren't sure what that meant, and so some of the bids that came in weren't realistic in terms of dollars and hours," Anderson said. "We felt the only way to make sure they knew what it was we were asking them to do was to require them to be trained.
"If they got the training from us, there would be no misunderstanding," she continued. "That's why we started the training and made it mandatory for any vendor who wants to bid on a state job."
The state started training 12 consultants per week in mid-May and finished in mid-August, Anderson said. Altogether, 81 consultants representing 35 companies completed the courses. The requirement initially drew grumbling from some vendors about sending employees to activities that didn't generate billable hours, but Anderson said the complaints died fairly quickly.
Companies pay employees to attend specialized training in database software or Internet architectures, she said, and accessibility training shouldn't be any different. Consultants themselves weren't initially enthusiastic about the training either.
"When they walked in the class, you could tell some of them felt it was a waste of time," she recalled. "The first part of the class is hands-on exercises, where I made them put their mouse away and navigate pages with their keyboards, for example. During that first hour, you could tell they started getting it. Then, it's like you can't give them enough information; they're starving for it."
Taking consultants out of their comfort zones and forcing them to experience the Web as a person with a disability experiences it made a tremendous difference, Anderson said. They quickly began to understand what they needed to do differently, and how they could meet Connecticut's Web accessibility guidelines.
The Illinois Technology Office is working with state agencies to create accessible Web sites through the use of specially designed templates. The templates are part of Content Builder - a secure intranet application that assists in the rapid creation of new single pages or entire Web sites.
The templates, which are based on the Illinois Web Accessibility Standards, should help agencies' Web staff easily create accessible, customizable Web pages, said Mary Barber Reynolds, the state's chief technology officer.
The templates give agencies a starting point for accessibility, but aren't a complete solution.
"Just because you're using a template doesn't mean you're automatically accessible," Reynolds said. "Agencies can still do things that are inaccessible within the template. We want agencies