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Disabled-Friendly Web Sites Offer a Lot to Us All-Analyst Says

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the September 15, 1998, issue of the "Dallas Morning News." Geoff Freed, project manager of the Web Access Project, joined WGBH, the Boston public television station, in 1985, working in The Caption Center as an off-line caption writer for programs such as Masterpiece Theatre and This Old House. In 1991, he became manager of external projects for The Caption Center, serving as a resource for information on captioning to the broadcast industry. He joined the Center for Public Broadcasting/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media, or NCAM, in 1993. From 1993 to 1996, he coordinated several projects for NCAM, including CC University, a project which taught the art of off-line closed captioning to public television stations. He's held his current position with the WebAccess Project since its inception in 1996. NCAM has a variety of access projects, including the Motion Picture Access Project, the CD-ROM Project, the Web Accessibility Project and large access-technology operations such as The Caption Center-the oldest captioning agency in the world. He lives in Boston. In the following edited interview with "Dallas Morning News" staff writer Jeanette Prasifka, Mr. Freed explains the problem of Web access and what the cyber community is doing about it.

QUESTION: On a scale of one to ten, how disabled-friendly would you rank the Internet?

ANSWER: The highest I would rank it would probably be a two. There are so many websites being added on a daily basis. Some might be partially accessible, and some might be entirely inaccessible. That is not because webmasters are trying to be mean; it's just that they're unaware that there are things they can do to make their websites accessible. To be honest with you, across the entire Web, of all the "bazillions" of websites, probably fewer than one percent are truly 100 percent accessible.

Q: What needs to happen in order to improve that rating?

A: You have to make people aware of the problem. And when you make people aware, you simultaneously give them guidelines and advice. The W3C's World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative was formed to do exactly that. Any ol' Joe can put up a website today and another tomorrow and still know nothing about accessibility issues unless perhaps they read about it somewhere.

Q: Why should able-bodied people be concerned with how disabled-friendly the Internet is?

A: Well, for several reasons. Everybody at some point in their life is going to have some sort of disability. When you get older, your sight goes to hell, and so does your hearing. If you're 25 years old, then your sight is excellent, and your hearing is great. But when you're 65, it may not be that way. Or you might have an accident, so it pays to design accessible sites for that reason. The best reason, however, is that it pays to design your sites accessible to everyone because not everyone has a superfast T-3 line to the Web, and not everyone has the ability to download the latest browser. A lot of people who are sighted and hearing use old browsers and 28.8 connections, so they turn off their images to save time and money. People may not have sound cards because they can't afford it, but they still want to look at the videos. So they use the captions because they can't hear the sound.

Q: Why aren't websites more accessible? Is it ignorance?

A: Ignorance is one word to use, but I wouldn't use "ignorance" like webmasters are stupid; it's just that they don't know. A lot of times you'll find out that technology that was developed for someone who is blind or deaf or in a wheelchair benefits everybody. That's when people really begin to see, hey, this is really pretty good stuff. Just like the curb cut into the sidewalk. You use it everyday, but if you're not in a wheelchair, who cares you use it anyway. So if you are in a wheelchair, you have to stand in line behind the people with baby carriages and skateboards. It's the same thing on the Web. When people start to wake up and realize, they see it benefits everybody. That's when the market will open up, so to speak.

One good example around here in Boston is grocery delivery services. They are great not only for people who are disabled, but for people who've just had a baby and can't get out of the house. If you can make that sort of service available to everyone, you'll definitely increase your business. But it's really just the right thing to do. It makes good sense to make your site accessible to as many people as possible.

Q: Do you foresee enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the area of Web accessibility in the near future?

A: I think until it is really tested, with a lawsuit essentially, it remains something of a gray area. There was an opinion issued by the Department of Justice a while ago about the ADA and how it applies to the Web. It said entities subject to Title II or III of the ADA must "provide effective communication to people with disabilities." That essentially means that the rule of public accommodation probably applies to the Web. Nobody has been sued over this, and because your site is not accessible doesn't mean you're going to land in the pokey tomorrow, but at some point in the future there's probably going to be a lawsuit. And that will be the big test. I'm not rooting for that to happen, but I'm certainly going to be curious to see the outcome.

Q: What is the greatest stumbling block in making the Web more accessible for disabled users?

A: The biggest stumbling block is the rate of change. There's so much that is being invented, and anybody can use it, and there is no regulation. New stuff is being added everyday to the Web. Some of the new stuff catches on, and if it hasn't been designed accessibly, we find ourselves playing catch-up. Until things sort of calm down and check themselves out, it's going to be tough to keep up. It's kind of fun living in an unregulated world, but after a while you have to sort of settle down. The Web is pretty much an unregulated forum. Anybody can do anything they want, which is great for invention, and I'm all for that. But it's terrible for trying to find a single approach. Already I think there's been some backlash in the last year or six months against sites that are so graphic-intensive. The general populace is tired of loading a bunch of stuff before they can even read the screen. So a lot of general consumers are saying, do you really need to have all this junk on your site?

Q: If the question of accessibility for the disabled is not addressed now, when the Internet is in its infancy, what are the consequences for the disabled?

A: One of the primary goals of the Web Access Initiative is to address the accessibility issue now and to get others in the industry like people who make the browsers so that in the future, accessibility hooks in a browser will be standard operating procedure. It's sort of like closed captions in the broadcast world. After over 25 years of captioning, it's really now that captioning is becoming common. It took until 1993 before it became mandatory for TVs 13 inches and larger to have decoders. That's five years ago. The first open captions appeared on WGBH in 1971.

Q: If you could paint the perfect picture for an easily accessible and navigable Internet environment, what would it look like?

A: Too much legislation is a bad thing, but some regulation is a good thing. So it would be nice if there could be some way to regulate the rate of change so that we could all keep up. It would be nice if people who design hardware and software could make their devices as fully configurable as possible. Browsers that you download could have features that implement style sheets so that you could override all the design features that somebody worked so hard to put in. Those design features are what makes some sites inaccessible. If I can program my browser to present information in a way I can use it, even if it blows away all a webmaster's work, it makes their stuff more accessible to me. And if they're selling me something and I want it, then I can buy it. As much flexibility as possible would be good.

It would be nice if computers could present information aurally so that I can hear it if I'm blind. If all the information can be presented aurally, then people can navigate the website easily. If, essentially, screenreaders could be sent to me through the website and also take my feedback through speech, in other words a talking website I could talk back to instead of typing if I had problems using my hands. Interactive sites such as these would be nice and would eliminate the need for spending thousands of dollars or more on special technology. Speech technology has great potential on the Web. If it could be incorporated more I think it could be a big help. Braille is also something people overlook. Having a preference on my browser to automatically deliver information to my refreshable Braille display would be nice. There's all sorts of things like that. I think flexibility is the word.

Q: Tell me about NCAM's Web accessibility symbol.

A: We developed the Web Access symbol primarily for educational purposes to make Web masters aware that there are things they can do to make their Websites accessible. Keep in mind that it's not a Good Housekeeping stamp, and just because a site uses it doesn't mean it is 100 percent accessible. The whole idea behind the symbol was to raise a flag and say this is something that you can do.

Q: What about users? What can they do for themselves?

A: One thing users can do is to write their own style sheets to override the web author's specifications. It's not very difficult to do, but people need to be made aware that they can do it. Style sheets tell a browser to change the look of a web page, like increase the font size, change the color, etc., any time it opens a web page. It's something that is relatively new, and it takes advantage of Cascading Style Sheets, which is another specification from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Q: How do you see access for disabled users changing in one, three or even five years?

A: Things are moving so fast that one year from now we'll have a lot of changes, and we'll probably be having a different conversation. A year from now things will be, I think, a little more positive. Five years from now, certainly things will be a lot different. I hope they'll be a lot more positive with browsers being designed more accessibly and Web sites being designed with a lot more knowledge and information. In the access industry, history has proved that we generally play catch-up to the rest of the world. Things change, and people are unaware that you have to make things accessible, not because they are mean, but because they don't know.

The Web changes so rapidly and without any kind of regulation. Up until just now, and just barely now, we have all been playing catch-up at a furious rate. The implementation of the Web Access Initiative has us moving a lot faster. The profile of accessibility is being raised to a point where browser manufacturers have to pay attention and webmasters are going to have to start paying attention. The message is getting out, "Design your Web site accessibly!" It's a good thing to do and it makes the most sense. So I am optimistic. Despite my grand optimism, however, it is not a rapid process. Again, because it is unregulated and because any ol' Joe can put up a website.