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New Olympics Web Site Reopens Controversy

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the E-ACCESS BULLETIN, The email newsletter on technology issues for people with visual impairment and blindness, ISSUE 23, NOVEMBER 2001.

Concerns are surfacing about the inaccessibility to people with disabilities of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics web site, prompting many to wonder if the Olympic movement has learned any lessons from a damning tribunal ruling against it in Australia last year.

Following the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics of 2000, blind web user Bruce Maguire was awarded 20,000 Australian dollars in damages against the games' organizing committee when the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission found the inaccessibility of the games' web site had caused Maguire undue "pain and suffering".

Inaccessible sites do not allow blind people using text-to-speech converters or others using special software to access the information they need.

Now concern is being expressed on accessibility email lists that the organizing committee of the forthcoming Winter Olympics, due to start on 8 February 2002, do not appear to have heeded the Australian case.

The reported shortcomings of the official games site at http://www.slc2002.org include the fact that not all images carry text tags and titles; inaccessible technologies such as JavaScript and Flash as used without alternatives being offered; metadata is not used to add information about pages; users are not warned wherever pop-up browser windows are used; page frames are used without titles; and not all audio files have captions.

There are also problems with clarity of text, some of which is placed over photographic images and is hard to read even for someone without visual impairment. On the other hand, the site appears to work well with some screen readers, and some accessibility features are present, such as text transcripts for videos.

Accessibility expert Joe Clark (http://www.joeclark.org) says many of the site's problems are relatively minor, and there are still many weeks left in which changes could be made. If the changes are not made, however, Clark warns that the Australian case could come back to haunt the US organizers.

"Human rights cases are international by definition. The principles of accommodating people with disabilities short of undue burden or hardship are essentially identical in the US, Australia and many other nations, so the Sydney case stands as an international precedent," he says. "The International Olympic Committee would be foolish to make the same mistake twice."

Some observers are harsher still. Another leading accessibility expert who asked to remain anonymous said: "Given the action against the Olympic site by the Australian authorities, the fact that the Salt Lake City site is not accessible shows a disregard for people with disabilities that is at best callous, and at worst deliberate."

Although doubts surround the applicability of the Australian ruling in US courts, America has its own law under which aggrieved people could act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm). Under the act organizations that do not make their facilities accessible can face fines of up to 50,000 US dollars.

On a more positive note, the organizing committee for the Athens Olympic Summer Games in 2004 seems set to be the first to fully embrace the issue of web accessibility. A spokesperson for the Athens committee told E-Access Bulletin this week that it was currently redesigning its site (http://www.athens.olympic.org/en - though at the time of writing the site had been taken down doe work) and that, "In a second phase, [the committee] is planning to make it accessible for people with disabilities."

For Joe Clark's analysis of the new controversy, see:http://www.contenu.nu/article.htm?id=1202

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