April 9, 2010 By Deborah Kaplan and Monir ElRayes
The ability to access and process electronic information has become one of the most important factors in leading a full and productive life in today's knowledge-based society. This makes access to electronic information critical for people with disabilities who are seeking employment and other opportunities.
Significant progress has been made to improve the accessibility of content presented on Web sites, often in HTML format. However, the accessibility of other electronic formats, such as Microsoft Word documents and PDFs, still lags behind and is often added as an afterthought, if at all. Given the enormous volume of content created daily -- often in the form of documents authored by individuals who know little about accessibility -- this means far too much material is inaccessible to far too many people.
Consequently the potential of the Information Age to level the playing field in terms of employment opportunities and to contribute positively to the lives of people with disabilities hasn't been fully realized. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for 25- to 64-year-olds was eight percent, compared to 11 percent for those with a non-severe disability and 26 percent for people with a severe disability.
Accessibility of documents can be implemented at a number of levels, as illustrated by the pyramid above.
At the top of the pyramid are enterprise verification and remediation personnel who are responsible for verifying that content created and disseminated by the enterprise is accessible. This typically involves auditing Web sites and other repositories of information to verify compliance with accessibility legislation, regulations and enterprise policies.
In the middle of the pyramid are quality-assurance and remediation personnel. They are typically responsible for testing documents before they are published and for correcting compliance errors.
At the base of the pyramid are document authors. The authors' main interest is to create content. They typically are oblivious to accessibility and are rarely aware of what makes a document accessible. There are a number of reasons why applying accessibility at this level can have the greatest impact. Authors know the content well. As a result, they can provide the most effective accessibility information. And authors are far more numerous than quality-assurance or enterprise testing personnel. Making authors responsible for the accessibility of their documents will take accessibility to the grassroots, thereby increasing the chances that documents are accessible. Also, it's far less expensive to add accessibility at the author level.
Broadly speaking, accessibility of electronic documents remains a highly specialized topic that's exclusive to accessibility experts. Most electronic documents are created without consideration for accessibility and are then made accessible at a later stage in the life cycle of the document. This is far from optimal because costs increase exponentially and quality decreases significantly the further accessibility is removed from the authoring stage of the document-management workflow.
The outcomes of such inefficient workflows are several, including the creation of fewer accessible documents due to the significant cost and complexity associated with remediating documents at the later stages of the workflow, and a lower quality of accessibility data within the produced documents.
A compelling solution is to make accessibility a part of the authoring process as opposed to a later-stage process that's often done, if at all, only as an afterthought. Author-level accessibility represents a significant breakthrough that will transform the accessibility of electronic documents by taking accessibility out of the realm of experts and bringing it into the mainstream.
Using effective author-level tools, accessibility can be brought to the grassroots. For example, a university professor who is creating course materials and distributing them to students
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