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Access Denied

Access Denied

Blind Australian Bruce Maguire knows all about the "digital divide". Maguire successfully complained to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission last year that Sydney Olympics organiser SOCOG discriminated against him by failing to make the Sydney Olympic ticket order form available in Braille.

In July he was at it again, seeking redress from SOCOG for failing to make the entire Olympic Games Web site accessible for those with disabilities. Outside the court he told reporters: "As an Australian with a disability all I have ever wanted to do since I lodged my complaint in June 1999 was to participate in the same way and on the same terms as other Australians."

That SOCOG employed legal manoeuvres to defer the matter, probably until after the Sydney Olympics, does nothing to diminish the significance of the action. Maguire may have been the first Australian taking such action over a Web site, but he almost certainly won't be the last.

No self-respecting architect today would dream of designing a building that was inaccessible to those with a disability. Nor should e-architects be allowed to continue designing whizz-bang structures that effectively lock out society's most disadvantaged. Yet the message is proving painfully slow to get through.

People with visual or mobility disabilities find most Web sites present significant barriers to adopting e-commerce. Some Web pages either hide text within images, frames, applets and animated gifs; or render it unintelligible in table, columnar or portable document format (pdf). Many online forms tend to be difficult for those with disabilities to navigate, especially when designed to prevent keyboard navigation and input.

Likewise, people with specific learning disabilities find they can't usually access Web pages audibly using screen readers. Those with cognitive disabilities get lost because there are usually too few navigation elements at Web sites. People with hearing disabilities can't access the content of audiostreaming and videoclips posted on the Internet, thanks to the absence of captioning.

If developers have got away with this in the past, they probably won't in future. The law is clear: any organisation providing a service from either the public and private sectors must provide reasonable access for consumers with disabilities or risk legal action.

"Major Australian organisations can expect court action for discrimination on the Internet," telecommunication policy researcher Michael Bourk warned during Internet World in Sydney earlier this year.

Bourk says several court cases in the US brought by people with disabilities - including one against America Online - have serious implications for Australian corporations and government agencies, which are equally vulnerable to legal action from people with disabilities for poorly designed Web sites. He says there is a real danger the local action by Maguire, as well as the successful 1995 suit against Telstra by a member of the Western Australian Deaf community, may be just the beginning.

"The reluctance of Australians to engage in court battles is no cause for complacency among IT managers and Web designers," Bourk says. "It is my firm belief that a decision that goes against AOL will feed the frustration that is growing among people with disabilities who have trouble accessing the Internet. Consequently, the AOL decision and the surrounding publicity may mobilise peak disability consumer groups on a public course of confrontation with Web designers and service providers that ignore their warnings."

The proactive position by governments on specific areas of Internet access such as commonwealth sites should give others no room for complacency.

Two-way Street

For those with disabilities, computers and the Internet should be opening doors into new worlds of opportunity. Instead, they often find those doors slammed rudely in their faces, leaving them frustrated and floundering on the outside.

Technology by itself is not the problem and can often be the answer - it's just that too often the way technology is used creates obstacles to the disabled.

"As a person who has been confined to a wheelchair for 38 years, I can say that the ‘bricks and mortar world' has addressed physical access issues at a very slow rate," says John McKenna, inaugural chairman of the Internet Industry Association's (IIA) Disability Access Taskforce.

"The designers and the builders of the ‘New Online World' must continually be reminded that people over the age of 55 and people who have hearing and visual impairments will in many cases have common concerns about Web page accessibility."

McKenna's experience is far from uncommon. People with Disabilities, the peak and statewide cross-disability advocacy agency in NSW, says it deals on a daily basis with complaints about the accessibility of electronic commerce and related technologies to those with a disability. For the most part, the complaints relate to ordinary life activities, like banking and purchasing. This, PWD says, in some cases are becoming less rather than more accessible as a result of the introduction of electronic technologies.

PWD says barriers for people with disabilities to taking advantage of e-commerce are multifaceted and include:

- Inaccessible software platforms and "document" formats (especially for people with sensory and/or cognitive impairment);- Inaccessible "hardware" platforms and associated infrastructure;- Cost; many people with disabilities simply cannot afford to purchase computer hardware or pay for access to online services;- Limited information about, and experience and confidence in using, computer- based technologies.

The irony is that there is no reason - not even economic - that things should be that way.

Enabling the blind to access Web sites can involve no more than putting text captions on photos or avoiding colour schemes that are confusing to colour-blind users. There is also an added bonus. Not only do such initiatives help the blind, they also help people with older and slower equipment, such as regional users on slow phone lines and yuppies using wireless Internet handheld gadgets.

Spreading the Word

The IIA's taskforce is attempting to solve the low level of industry awareness of the need to design Web sites to which the visually impaired and others with disabilities can have maximum access. The taskforce has the support of the Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association and the Australian Information Industry Association.

The IIA is planning a number of national seminars for coming months to take the message to its members: "Good access is good business." And good business it clearly is, as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) points out in its report on access to electronic commerce and new service and information technologies for older Australians and people with a disability.

According to the HREOC, the most innovative, leading-edge applications tend to be the ones that people who are blind or vision impaired find the most difficult to learn and use. That's because creative new applications tend to break with established conventions to present information in a more visually appealing, effective or impressive visual format.

"It therefore also follows that since e-commerce applications and Web pages are some of the most leading-edge and innovative services, then these are often some of the most difficult or impossible applications and sites for a blind person to access or use," the human rights group says.

Yet HREOC says using digital technology can provide real benefits to many people with disabilities by making information more accessible. Giving those with a disability access to that technology opens organisations up to a new and potent source of customers.

To help those with a disability get access to your site is to create a winning situation. "Digital technologies also offer providers of information and services great potential gains in efficiency and effectiveness - gains which many providers have only begun to take advantage of," HREOC says.

"Customers and citizens may benefit from potential savings if they participate since information providers such as government and [service providers] such as banking are already [giving] services and information at lower cost to the customer in digital form than in other forms. [They may also] incur potential costs if they do not or cannot participate, since many service providers are increasingly moving to charge higher fees for [the more expensive forms of service such as] over-the-counter service and information in paper form.

"There are also less tangible personal and social costs if some members of the community do not have equally effective access to information and opportunities which other Australians are already [taking for granted]."

Easier Development

The IIA took some pains to make its site at www.iia.net.au broadly accessible. While admitting it has yet to achieve perfection, executive director Peter Coroneos says not only was the cost of designing a disability-friendly Web page lower than normal because it didn't rely heavily on graphics, but Web page development was actually easier.

"For our industry this is not just an issue of managing liability, although the US litigation by blind Internet users has not escaped the attention of our members. More importantly, however, better-designed sites provide an opportunity to reach a broader cross-section of the market than they might otherwise access. The Internet is a boon for people with difficulties in getting about or older people whose eyesight isn't what it used to be. These groups represent significant proportions of Internet users and in the US represent more than $1 trillion in consolidated buying power. The business case makes the social case all the more compelling," Coroneos says.

"We think that this is actually quite an achievable objective for companies because the changes do not necessitate large costs and make the site more accessible to a greater range of people, so it's actually quite a good investment."

Getting Started

In an online editorial, SunSoft distinguished engineer Jakob Nielsen advises a staged rollout of accessibility.

"The home page and high-traffic pages should be redesigned to follow the high-priority accessibility rules immediately. The same is true for any pages on the critical path to [completing successfully] e-commerce purchases or other important transactions."

Nielsen says all new pages should follow the high-priority and medium-priority rules; checking for compliance should also be made part of the organisation's verification procedures for new content. He suggests organisations should also gradually redesign medium-traffic pages to follow the high-priority accessibility rules.

"As a longer-term goal, redesign high-traffic pages to follow all three levels of accessibility rules and recommend that new pages also follow the lower-priority rules as much as possible. Low-traffic old pages may be left alone unless they concern matters of particular interest to users with disabilities. "The latest W3C guidelines at www.W3C.org outline simple measures that can be used by site designers to make their sites more "disability-friendly".

The HTML Writer's Guild's Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education (AWARE) Center also promotes accessible Web page design.

Guides to developing a Disability Discrimination Act action plan may be downloaded from: www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/action_plans/Business_Guide/business_guide.htmlMeanwhile www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/universal.design.html contains useful design tips based on the guidelines developed by the W3C and which are known collectively as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

And you can use Bobby, a public software program, to evaluate Web site accessibility to people with a range of disabilities. Bobby is free and can be downloaded from www.cast.org/bobby/The organisation should also consider developing a disability discrimination action Plan containing short, medium and long-term goals to address activities and conditions that may be construed as discriminatory to people with disabilities.

HREOC says developing an action plan can help a business over some of the complexities of discrimination legislation and help it minimise the risk of legal action being taken against it.

"The implementation of an action plan will make it far less likely that a business will commit discriminatory acts in the first place. A successful action plan can, in a sense, act as an insurance policy against DDA complaints," HREOC says. - S BushellGetting It RightIn 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) issued advisory notes in which it pointed out that inaccessible Web sites are exposed to the prospect of complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) from any person with a disability who is disadvantaged by lack of access. These advisory notes emphasise that:

"Provision of information and other material through the Web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided. This requirement applies to any individual or organisation developing a World Wide Web page in Australia, or placing or maintaining a Web page on an Australian server."

Yet when the HREOC conducted preliminary tests of accessibility to commonwealth government sites, it found users who had a disability or did not have access to high-speed connections and up-to-date computers had considerable difficulty in accessing those sites.

Many of them presented barriers to users who couldn't see images, couldn't access documents in PDF format, or had difficulty with those using frames. A large number of the sites required excessive download times even at the home page level.

However, HREOC praised agencies - including the Australian Taxation Office, the Federal Court of Australia and the Office of Disability within the Department of Family and Community Services - as having made particular progress in achieving accessibility.

HREOC also found that many high-traffic private sector sites showed a similar range of accessibility problems as found in commonwealth government sites. The private sector sites were selected on the basis of being the most visited. Problems included:

- images and image maps lacking "alt text" labels, and dynamic elements not havin text equivalents; - pages having excessive download times; - users being required to download additional software - not always compatible with older equipment or usable by vision-impaired people - with no alternative means of access being provided; and- frames used without providing "no frames" alternatives; frames not properly labelled to enable screen reader software to cope with them.

HREOC concluded more private than public sites had failed to ensure that interactive elements were accessible - for example, a form a user has to fill in to gain access to goods or services. Private sites also failed to ensure that security elements did not unnecessarily exclude people using older equipment or those unable to use screens, the HREOC found.

The commission concluded that most barriers would be relatively easy for providers to remedy on existing pages and avoid for new pages.

"It is very clear from research and submissions in this reference that many people with a disability are acutely aware of potential benefits from participation in use of new technologies but are being excluded or disadvantaged by particular barriers," HREOC says. "It is also clear that the same issues arise for many older Australians." - S Bushell

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More about America OnlineAOLAustralian Information Industry AssociationAustralian Taxation OfficeCommonwealth GovernmentCritical PathHREOCHuman Rights and Equal Opportunity CommissionIIAInternet Industry AssociationNielsenProvisionSOCOGSunSoftTelstra CorporationW3C

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