January 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Seeing the light

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In December the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets web technology standards to support widespread use of the Internet, released a new set of guidelines for making web sites accessible to people with disabilities and those dealing with common limitations of old age. The group’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, available at w3.org, were designed to make web site content and functionality more operable as well as understandable by handicapped users as web sites introduce more interactive Web 2.0 technologies, such as online video and other forms of interactive rich media.

SSB Bart Group provides a web-based accessibility management platform that shows whether a web site supports the deployment of assistive technologies. For a retailer doing about $50 million to $100 million a year in revenue, SSB Bart will charge from $40,000 to $80,000 to use its software to audit a web site’s infrastructure to see how well it can support assistive technology like screen readers; the cost could double if a retailer also wants SSB Bart to remediate any problems, Rosenfeld says.

For retailers who do their own audits, SSB Bart offers software-as-a-service for about $1,000 per month.

Screen readers include JAWS for Windows by Freedom Scientific Inc., Window-Eyes from GW Micro Inc., BrowseAloud by Texthelp Systems Ltd., and Easy Web Browsing from IBM Corp. Microsoft Corp.’s Vista operating system comes with the built-in Narrator screen reader as well as other tools including a text magnifier and an on-screen keyboard.

Radar mouse

Essential Accessibility has developed a software suite that gives people without full motor skills the ability to navigate web pages without regular use of a mouse or keyboard. The software, already deployed by Canadian Tire and other retailers, comes in a variety of applications.

A disabled shopper, after arranging to download or receive a CD of free software from the retailer, simply needs to be able to exert pressure on an electronic device, such as with a fingertip press by someone who can’t move his hand side to side, or, for a paralyzed quadriplegic, with a head movement.

In one “radar mouse” application, for example, a line that extends from the center to the outer edge of a web page slowly circles the page like a second hand on a watch. Once the shopper sees that the line is approaching a particular section of a web page-a shirt for sale, for instance-she engages the finger- or head-activated device to stop the moving line; a second press of the device will send an icon up the line toward the shirt; when the icon lands on the desired point of the page, such as the Buy button for the shirt, the shopper activates a third press of the device to make a purchase.

The same application works with an on-screen keyboard that enables the disabled shopper to enter information such as billing and shipping information.

Better planning

Technology companies are also producing applications that let web developers simulate web page functionality-or lack of it-in a way that would likely be experienced by a disabled person.

IBM’s aDesigner for Flash tool, for example, lets developers simulate accessibility issues experienced by visually impaired people trying to use multimedia content on a web page. By experiencing the same blurred view that a person with cataracts might see, or the shadows seen by a person with color blindness, developers can adjust a web page’s coding to make it more usable by a visually impaired person, IBM says.

There also is more information available to help retailers keep up with changing disability policies and technologies. Attorney Kemp, for example, last month began working with TecAccess, a consulting firm specializing in web site accessibility applications, to publish a quarterly Digital Accessibility Trends Analysis report.

Indeed, it’s not lack of technology or information that is holding back broad web site accessibility and usability, experts say. “It’s not about technology limitations, because most technology platforms can accommodate an accessible, usable experience,” Franco of EffectiveUI says. “It’s about planning your site infrastructure.”


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