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January 29, 2001

Web Sites for the Blind
Walton Francis

Last year Section 504, of the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended by a new Section 508, making it crystal clear that Federal Government Web sites, along with all other services of covered entities, have to be accessible. There are no regulations for state, local, or private web sites as such, but the legislation requires de facto accessibility by whatever means are available, subject to a "reasonableness" standard (the legal phrase is "reasonable accommodation"). Section 504 now applies to all Federal grantees and contractors as well as to as the Federal government itself.

This includes virtually all hospitals, and educational institutions, and most other health care providers other than individual physicians. Section 504, not ADA, is tied to Federal funding dollars. But that is only of interest to those being investigated or sued.

In practice, the issue is simple. People who are deaf, paraplegic, or have other physical handicaps can read Web pages using any browser that works for the population at large. But as regards, the practical ability of blind persons to read Web pages, either a Web site can be read with a voice reader using a text browser such as Lynx or it cannot. Sites which rely heavily on graphics, Java, Javascript, and cool tools, present problems. One online resource,, provides a way to test your site, it can be very depressing to find out how badly you are messing up.

In general, documents should be posted in HTML, the natural language of the Web. Acrobat PDF files, which cannot be read by text-based browsers, are a nuisance on all browsers compared to HTML, and should never be more than an adjunct.

Some Web techies are enamored of gadgetry and trickery. Many program only for those who use the latest version of Internet Explorer (cleverly and deliberately designed by Microsoft to be incompatible with competing Browsers and HTML standards). Additionally, many public relations people refuse to admit the reality of any file types other than PDF.

A simple test for any Web site is to insist that it can be viewed from a 28K modem-based America Online account using Netscape Navigator version 4.0 or earlier (preferably on a 486 PC or Macintosh), without having downloaded the Acrobat reader (one-third of Internet users refuse to download the reader). This test separates real programmers from boys with toys.

There is no excuse for being inaccessible to the blind, but even if there were, inaccessible Web sites are also impractical for the one-half of all Internet users who are modem or browser or PDF disadvantaged. Even if you don't care about the about the ADA, why would you want your Web site difficult, or unusable by one-half of your potential customers or clients? Because it doesn't require fancy coding or complex graphics, doing it right costs less, whether you view it from a civil rights perspective or not.

One final caution: an obscure government agency called the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has already published section 508 regulations applying to Federal government purchases of hardware and software as well as to Federal Web sites. Some of the requirements are incredibly detailed (36 CFR Part 1194, published March 31 2000 at Federal Register pages 17346-367, downloadable in text or PDF format through the Government Printing Office Web site). This agency openly estimates the costs of meeting its requirements as potentially a billion dollars a year or more, most to be borne by the private sector. What needs to be done to make ninety-nine percent of Web sites accessible is trivially easy and requires only common sense. But that last one percent could be really tough.

Walton Francis, an independent consultant, was for many years Director of the Division of Regulatory and Policy Analysis in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of the Secretary, DHHS. In that job, among other functions, he was the lead policy analyst on civil rights issues. He was also for several years Co-chairman of the DHHS Internet Reinvention Laboratory, which was then in charge of the Department-wide home page and of coordinating Web activities among agencies of the Department.

Francis notes that two important resources are the Federal Government's and

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