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Web Critic: And Web Accessibility for All? Assessing the Government Technology Magazine Award Winners in Terms of A

By Kathy Biehl, Published on February 15, 2001

Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.

Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the information they convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.

Web Critic Archives

Web Critic 7: And Web Accessibility for All?

Web Critic 6: Award Winning Government Sites

Web Critic 5: Search Engines: Second Verse, Same as the First

Web Critic 4: The Effective Use of Pull-Down Menus as Navigational Tools on a State Government Web Site

Web Critic 3: State Tax License Services on the Web

Web Critic 2: Fair Warning of Web Site Content

Web Critic 1: Evaluating Legal Research Web Sites

After the last Web Critic looked at state and local sites that had won
“Best of the Web 2000" awards from Government Technology magazine,
reader MM asked how I would assess the winners’ accessibility for people
with disabilities. That factor was not explicitly among the contest
criteria, but it does fall under the final one, ease of use and improved
citizen access. 

Before taking a return look at these award winners, I’ll retrace the crash
course in Website accessibility that MM’s question precipitated. (I’m
grateful to Pro2Net contributor Scott Cytron for the background
and resources he provided on this issue.) What follows is by no means an
in-depth analysis of the issue of making Websites accessible to the
disabled. Instead I’ll outline some basic concerns, point to some online
resources, and spell out some guidelines that aid site design and analysis.
Even if Government Technology award winners do not pique your interest, the
accessibility guidelines should, if you are involved in developing the
content or design of any Web site. 

The Need for Access

We’re used to thinking in terms of providing alternative means of access
to physical offices (such as ramps and elevators as substitutes for stairs)
and to information (by, for example, duplicating signage in Braille and
offering TTY lines). Applying that concept - giving multiple routes to the
same or equivalent resources - to Websites is part of making government
facilities available to all citizens. 

It’s also, in many instances, required by law. The Department of Justice,
in a 1996 opinion letter, interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act
as applying to Websites. For an excellent, succinct discussion of the ADA’s
applicability to the Internet (and eye-opening admonitions about law firm
sites), see Is Your Site ADA-Compliant ... or a Lawsuit-in-Waiting? by attorneys Cynthia D. Waddell and Kevin Lee Thomason. Federal agencies are subject to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which mandates that their electronic and information technology (except for national security systems) be accessible to the disabled. More information about this act appears at the Department of Justice Section 508 Home Page

Accessibility Guidelines

To set internationally accepted standards for Web page accessibility, more
than 400 corporations and organizations around the globe have joined in the
World Wide Web Consortium and a project called the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines set up three levels of checkpoints for evaluating accessibility, arranged from the mandatory to the permissive. The first, Priority One, are requirements that a site must satisfy to provide access to the disabled. Priority Two checkpoints are ones that a site should satisfy, while Priority Three are concerns that a site may satisfy.

A checklist of the requirements for satisfying each level appears in WAI’s
table
. For the most part they facilitate effective site design and easier
navigation - traits that are desirable in any Web page, whether or not it
is subject to the ADA.

Some of the Priority One checkpoints address providing a text, rather than
a graphical, format to assist users who rely on screen readers (which read
electronic data out loud in a synthesized voice). This includes adding
descriptive tags to images and offering text counterparts to applets,
sounds, image-based navigational, aids and tables. Priority One also
requires titles for frames and labels for table columns and rows, auditory
descriptions of the visual content of multi-media, synchronizing captions
or auditory descriptions with multi-media presentations, and making sure
pages work if applets and scripts are turned off. Other concerns include
using clear, simple language and organizing documents so that they are
readable without style sheets.

Priority Two checkpoints speak to predictability and uniformity. This level
requires the use of style sheets (to control layout) and consistent
navigation mechanisms. It recommends clearly identifying the target of each
link (an answer to one of my pet peeves!), not using pop-windows, and not
changing the current window without warning the user (an admonition that
includes not creating pages that automatically refresh themselves
periodically). Providing a color contrast between the foreground and
background is another Priority Two item.

The third level speaks to differences in knowledge and skills among users.
It suggests defining each abbreviation and acronym on first occurrence,
which is already a convention in legal drafting. Other recommendations
include structuring search tools to address a variety of skill levels and
preferences, offering keyboard shortcuts to important links (to accommodate
visitors who don’t use a mouse), and providing table summaries and
redundant text links for all active regions in image maps. 

Applying the Guidelines: Call on Bobby 

Reviewing the WAI guidelines point by point is certainly a useful exercise
for internalizing the standards. For applying them to an existing site,
though, a quick and efficient alternative exists. It’s a diagnostic
application called Bobby, as in the British nickname for a patrolman. (The icon depicts a friendly-looking policeman, in grade school textbook illustration style, with the icon of a wheelchair on his helmet.) 

Bobby compares specified Web pages against the WAI guidelines and generates reports that detail any changes that are necessary for compliance. It is available at no charge from its creator, the Center for Applied Special Technology, a non-profit dedicated to innovative computer technology for people with disabilities. Bobby comes in two versions, an online tool that evaluates the information at a single URL and a downloadable application for
simultaneously diagnosing multiple pages (which would handle an entire
site, including Intranet pages and those behind a firewall.) 

CAST maintains a database of sites that are “Bobby Approved,” which
currently total more than 1500. The Bobby software does not automatically
enter a qualifying site into this database; authors make the entries
themselves, on the honor system, after determining that their sites meet
all of the WAI’s Priority One accessibility guidelines. 

You do not have to be a Web author to take advantage of Bobby. The database and the application are open to any visitor who is curious about the
accessibility of a particular site. For that reason, I enlisted Bobby to
review the accessibility of the Government Technology Best of the Web 2000 winners. If you’d like to follow along at your own computer, the winning sites on the state level were North Carolina, Georgia, and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and on the local government level were 
the City of Seattle, the Clerk-Treasurer of Douglas County,
Nevada
, and San Jose Permits Online.

Bobby Meets the Government Technology Award Winners

The first thing I did was look for each award winner in the Bobby Approved
database. None of them were there. This absence means only that no one from the sites has run them through the Bobby diagnostic software and entered the sites in the database. Interestingly, the database does include sites from the same jurisdiction as a few of the award winners - the Georgia Department of Labor, Virginia’s Employment Commission and Board of Elections, and the Clark County, Nevada Election Department - which indicates some level of awareness of the WAI guidelines within those systems.

The next step was running a Bobby diagnostic on each award winner. Because this was an academic exercise, I did not take the time to download and install the expanded version of Bobby and run every page of each site
through the application. Instead, I tested only the top page of each site,
for a general estimate of how well the design complies with the WAI
guidelines. 

The state winners appeared to need only minor tinkering. Bobby found no out
outright accessibility errors in any of them. For each one it flagged
around a half a dozen Priority One user checks, which are items requiring
manual review to determine whether they are an issue. (For purposes of this
column, the Priority One user checks are the only ones I will address. They
are not the only items that a Bobby report will point out, however. It
generates user checks as well as stylistic concerns at all three priority
levels.)

Interestingly, some of the user checks were the same for two and sometimes
all three of the sites. A few of the highlighted items did not appear to be
an issue for any of them, such as offering an alternative if color is used
to convey information. Bobby also flagged the use of tables; if they are
for data, rather than layout (which was not the case with any of the state
winners), the row and column headers need to be identified.

Another recurring user check was extending alt tag descriptions of images
if they convey important information that is not mentioned. This is a
problem at the Virginia DMV site, which uses the one-word label
“advertisement” for graphic banners that are linked to pages for special
services, such as vanity license plates or the no car tax campaign. (The
inadequacy of this label had caught my eye when I gave the site a quick
review based on my recollection of WAI guidelines, before running it
through Bobby.) This particular user check doesn’t appear to present an
issue for either the North Carolina nor Georgia sites, both of which give a
representative description of the content of images. 

North Carolina actually goes too far in the other direction, according to
Bobby. When I’d eyeballed the site before entering the URL in Bobby, I’d
considered it good that an alt tag duplicates the governor’s welcoming
message, which appears in a graphic. The tag’s length caught Bobby’s
attention. Because the description exceeds 150 characters, Bobby
recommended replacing it with the tag “longdesc” and moving the text to a
separate, linked file.

The news briefs that roll across Georgia’s top page won a flag from Bobby,
which warned to make sure that the page is still usable if programmatic
objects do not function. The rolling news briefs appear to operate
separately from the remainder of the page, which would satisfy this user
check, but they’re not available in any other form. That would seem to be a
concern as well in light of one of the user checks that Bobby gave to the
Virginia DMV site: providing alternative content for each script that
conveys important information or functionality. The only feature that I
could detect that could have triggered this requirement was the visitor
counter at the bottom of the page. Whether this conveys important
information is a judgment call. 

The Georgia and Virginia DMV pages triggered one warning I was unable to
assess, which was making sure the page is still readable if style sheets
are ignored or unsupported by a browser.

Of the local pages, the City of Seattle scored best, receiving much the same user checks (half of which seemed inapplicable) as the state government pages. Both of the other two (the Clerk’s Office of Douglas County, Nevada, and San Jose Permits Online) received outright accessibility errors for failing to provide alternative text for graphics. 

The similarities in the reports Bobby generated for these government sites
demonstrates that certain basic design flaws pose recurring problems for
the disabled. The user checks in the reports also show that making the
pages more uniformly accessible does not necessarily require a major
overhaul. Relatively simple adjustments in coding would resolve most, if
not all, of the issues that Bobby raised for the Government Technology
award winners. There’s a lesson here for all of us who offer legal research
resources on the Web. 

ã Kathy Biehl 2001.