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Web Of Opportunity

Waterfront Online (UK)
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
By Charlie Duff

New technology such as voice activation helps to make the web accessible.

Website accessibility is becoming a big issue, but for those in the know it seems a bit long coming, as it's actually been the law to make your website accessible since 1999, as it's included in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

But what does website accessibility mean?

Well, it's nothing to do with everyone having a laptop, but is to do with the problems some people face when using the Internet.

Lots of people find using the Internet difficult. People who have problems with their vision, those who have reduced mobility capabilities and therefore cannot use a keyboard or mouse, such as those with coordination, or manual dexterity problems, for example.

Those with multiple sclerosis, or, temporarily, those with broken bones find that they need help using computers and the Internet. Other people who have problems include those with dyslexia, dyspraxia or perhaps have English as a second language.

What if you are colour blind? This doesn't necessarily mean that you only see in black and white, but simply that you might have difficultly distinguishing between certain colours, like brown, red, or green.

This particular condition is fairly common - it's believed that around 8% of boys and 0.5% of girls have some difficulty with their colour vision (It's more common in boys because it's passed down genetically through the X chromosome, and girls have two of these, so if one doesn't work so well, they can use the other one. Boys don't have this option).

If you had problems distinguishing between colours then using certain websites may well be difficult for you.

The key to making life easier for those who find using the equipment necessary to access the web, hard or pages difficult to see is to build websites with disability access in mind.

This is well worth doing - there is an estimated 80,000 people in Wales who are blind or partially sighted.

The Royal National College for the Blind says that the Internet can be the best thing that ever happened for people with disabilities.

Before the Internet, newspapers were out of reach for blind people without friends who would read to them, and those with motor problems who couldn't hold one.

Now the blind can use screen readers to read articles online, and people with motor problems can use a mouth-held device to use the keyboard or eyetracking software to help them access the news.

Clever stuff, but however sophisticated the equipment may be, a website needs to have some accessibility for it to be understood by the devices and software.

Website accessibility becomes particularly important as a student. Access to careers information, job hunting and communication is essential to students, and more often than not, only available, or at least most easily available on the Internet.

The slow take up of this part of the disability discrimination act is highly frustrating for disabled students, according to Discovery. They say that Swansea University should be leading the way in making all of its associated websites accessible for the disabled community. "They're a huge organisation and employer. The university's new website is definitely not bad in terms of accessibility, but there are issues with Blackboard and S.U. websites." They add: "Everyone has the right to know what education an d opportunities they can access."

There are 3 levels to describe how accessible a website is. They range from A (which has some accessibility features) to AAA, the highest level of accessibility. There are webbased programmes to run checks on some standards, but accessibility is hard to define - but the aim is simple - it is to try to make the web as easy to use as possible.

A motion was passed at the recent Students General Meeting to lobby the university and Student's Union to make all of the websites associated with it accessible. This means that future students of Swansea with disabilities will hopefully find accessing the information from the University much easier.

Do Try This At Home...

For most of us it's difficult to imagine not being able to easily navigate the web and use Blackboard, MSN Messenger, explore blogs, websites and send email. In the interests of research, and not procrastination of course, I tried navigating bbc.co.uk without my beloved mouse. While people were searching for 'Britney Spears', 'Cheeky Girls' and 'Europe', I was stuck on the home page trying to get my tab button to the 'Accessibility' tool. It was really frustrating, and I couldn't really work out which button I had highlighted, as it was difficult to see. I went to all the wrong pages, and tried to use some of the keyboard shortcuts as instructed by the accessibility pages, without much success. Ideally, there should be specially coloured alternative versions which you could then use to be able to see the website better if you have vision problems. Now armed with my mouse I had a look at bbc.co.uk again. There are a number of different colour options to choose from, but unfortunately, these only apply to the homepage at present.

During a morning of web browsing for various tasks, I discovered that online life is still hard for the disabled.

First, on to Facebook to see what's been happening. Ok, so the layout is probably easier to navigate than MySpace, but there's no mention of accessibility. Not very good. I did manage to check my email without a mouse though, which was good. Now to order my gown and so on for my graduation. I actually could do that without a mouse. And if I needed to I could change the font size and colours...but I couldn't work out how. I'd need a lot of training to understand how to do that. As someone who was largely self-taught with computers, it felt like trying to learn everything all over again. Not much fun.

Taken fromhttp://www.waterfrontonline.co.uk/articles/2007/05/08/web-of-opportunity.

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