An Inclusive Internet

States discover there's more than one way to improve Web site accessibility.

by / November 21, 2002
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.

Trying Templates
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 to be aware that the template helps them be more accessible, but they still have to pay attention to details."

The templates don't just point Illinois agencies in the right direction on accessibility, they do so cost-effectively.

"We figured out a way of providing, in an accessible manner, navigation, the header and other features," said Patrick Beaird, statewide Web development manager. "Instead of having 60-something agencies plus boards and commissions come up with 60-something different ways to provide a page accessibly; let's save everybody money, let's take a look at our accessibility standards and develop a set of templates that meet those standards and give the agencies a big jump-start on this accessibility issue."

Given the current economic climate, the cost of accessibility is a big issue for state government.

"When you ask the agencies to make all their Web pages accessible, and then you turn around and expect them to hire experts and Web designers on their own who can make their pages accessible, in this economic time, that's unreasonable," Reynolds said. "We have agencies that have thousands of hand-coded Web pages. Putting them into a template makes it easier, and less costly, for the agencies to maintain their pages.

"We've tried to appeal to agencies on numerous fronts because we think it's the right thing to do," she continued. "I can't force the agencies that want to sit here and debate with me - I can't force them to change their Web page."

Measure Twice, Cut Once
Designing accessible Web pages often is no more difficult than creating inaccessible sites, according to state officials.

"A lot of the ways of coding pages to make them more accessible are not reinventing the wheel," Beaird said. "It's a matter of being more diligent. If somebody can code a page and use five tables and use some alt tags and some other things, why can't they be diligent about correctly using alt tags and correctly using nesting tables. This is not that much more work.

"It's just - watching as you code so your pages are created in a standardized manner and contain all of the information they should," he said. "We see these templates as our first effort, and we're already thinking about what the next generation is going to be."

In addition, Beaird and Reynolds are attempting to spread the approach to other jurisdictions.

"At a recent digital government summit, at least a third of the room was city and county government," Reynolds said. "Sitting in that room, I started talking to Patrick [Beaird], and said, 'You know what, let's throw our template out there to counties. Let's throw it out there to cities. They can modify it the way that they want, but let's make it easier for them.'

"We started talking to a couple of local governments, asking them if they're interested," she said. "Our webmaster guidelines are not just for state government. The guidelines could be used by universities, a city, a county or a municipality."

Beaird said Illinois also has talked to other states and even to Australia about the accessibility templates.

"I've talked to the FirstGov people, and we'd love to talk to other people," he said. "Collaboration is good. This whole thing of not reinventing the wheel - if we're providing an accessible template set to our state agencies, it's not inconceivable that states could collaborate and share code and share templates."