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November 17, 2002

Making sure no one is left behind

From: Dayton Daily News, OH
Nov. 17, 2002

Researcher working to make Internet accessible to disabled

By Tim Tresslar
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Dayton Daily News

DAYTON | University of Dayton researcher Sarah Swierenga says making the Internet more accessible to those with disabilities is not only good business and good policy, but also the right thing to do.

"For me, the issues go beyond reasons of legality and profit," Swierenga said. "As technology moves forward, I believe we have a moral obligation to make sure no one is left behind."

She has finished her first study of the issues the blind encounter when using the Web. Swierenga now is working to get more money to conduct another, wider-reaching study.

Several factors are converging to make accessibility an important issue for businesses, schools and government agencies. Advances such as distance learning have made accessible Web sites critical for schools and businesses, Swierenga said. And, as the population ages, more entities will find they need to offer Web sites capable of accommodating those with limited eyesight and hearing or cognitive or mobility impairments, and not just those with legally defined disabilities, she said.

The implications are wide-reaching and the research conducted not only by UD but many others offers hope.

"It's potentially all of us," Swierenga said. "Who isn't getting older? You don't have to drop out just because parts of your body are failing you, or parts of your mental processing aren't what they used to be."

Regulatory pressures also are bringing the issue to the forefront. For example, accessibility of federal and state Web sites has been mandated through such measures as the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1998 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Still, the pace of change at the federal level, according to one study, has been slow. The standards set forth in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act are designed to make the internet more accessible to people with limited vision or blindness, deafness and cognitive impairments. But, of the 148 agencies examined, 13.5 percent had fully accessible sites, according to the study released by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. All sites were supposed to have met accessibility standards by June 25, 2001.

Awareness is a key catalyst for change in both private and public sectors, Swierenga said. And it's important for companies to consider accessibility issues while a Web site is still under development rather than after it's released, she said.

"Companies can address the issue most cost effectively by incorporating it into technology planning, development and maintenance processes," she said.

The costs of doing so, she said, are offset by giving businesses access to a large market. For example, 54 million Americans and 500 million people worldwide have at least one significant disability.

It also offers intangible benefits. According to a December 2001 report issued by Forrester Research Inc., accessible Web sites give companies a public-relations boost and also prompt greater loyalty from the customers who benefit.

"Who doesn't want to tap into a large market segment that's been fairly ignored over the years, especially when you pull in older and other people with limited capabilities, but who aren't legally disabled?" Swierenga said. "When you have your sites designed correctly, you have access to a lot more potential customers. It's really as simple as that."

Additionally, making Web sites more user friendly also eases the burden on a company's customer-service staff and reduces costs, she said.

To make a site accessible to someone who is blind, it must include alternative text that describes each image and icon and can be picked up by a screen reader, Swierenga said. Text captioning should be included for people who can't hear computer prompts such as beeps or spoken messages.

Swierenga suggests that for those with cognitive impairments, information should be presented in small, discrete units without blinking distractions on the page. Pages requiring a timed response should also include a prompt to alert the user and some type of delay button to give the user sufficient time to complete a task.

Previously, Swierenga spent 10 years with LexisNexis' design and usability group. While at the company, a provider of business and legal information, she oversaw an accessibility compliance initiative with LexisNexis.

Swierenga, who joined the university in May, splits her time between conducting research for the University of Dayton Research Institute and teaching graduate-level psychology courses focused on the interaction between humans and computers for the university. She hopes to involve some of her graduate students in the research process to increase its effectiveness, she said.

Tony Guy, a vision services specialist with the Easter Seals Technology Resource Center, participated in Swierenga's first study. During the process, he conducted searches, worked with his screen-reading software and described the mental picture of Web sites that formed for him as he worked on them, he said.

"It was pretty intense," he said.

Guy, who spends a good portion of his workday on computers, said he regularly encounters difficulties while navigating the Web. Graphics, pictures and pages that frequently refresh themselves all can trip up applications such as screen-reading software programs meant to help disabled persons, he said. Such delays can hamper his ability to do his job, he said.

He doesn't expect Web pages to be perfect, he said. But he would like them set up well enough that he can access the same information as a sighted person, he said.

Swierenga said the blind encounter some of the biggest challenges when approaching the Internet, making it a good area in which to begin. The area has been well researched by others, too, she said.

"My long-term goal is to address a variety of disabilities and the issues people with those disabilities face when trying to search and retrieve information from the Web," she said.

Copyright © 2002, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.