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lynx-dev ADA starts biting
lynx-dev ADA starts biting
Thu, 24 Aug 2000 02:24:45 -0400
Washington Post 000824
Agencies Act to Ease Internet Use by Disabled -- Carrie Johnson
For Ginny Finch, a visit to the Internet can turn painful in a few seconds.
The charts and photos and whiz-bang graphics that designers are paid
so much to deliver make Finch, a marketing specialist at the Federal
Highway Administration, recoil. She is legally blind, and though at
work she uses a computer monitor that is nearly two feet wide, many
destinations on the World Wide Web still feel remote, if not jarring,
to her eyes.
"I often avoid getting on the Internet because it's just too
difficult," said Finch.
In the next few months, the federal government is expected to make
parts of the Web less cumbersome for Finch and others with
disabilities. The changes, long awaited by advocates for the disabled,
will apply to Web sites, software programs and other technology
products prepared by federal agencies for the public or their own
The new accessibility standards have been in the works since 1998,
when Congress reauthorized and amended the Rehabilitation Act, making
the mandate more explicit. After two years of study and comment by
disability rights groups, government entities and businesses, the
changes are likely to take effect by the middle of next year –
six months after they are publicly released.
But government projects, which require months or even years of
planning, already are beginning to reflect the new goals. And federal
agencies are scrambling to ensure that not only their Web sites, but
also the internal software programs they use, are disability-friendly.
"Most IT [information technology] managers know they've got to do
this, and they're trying to," said Diana Hynek, who coordinates the
effort at the Commerce Department. Hynek said Commerce is first
revamping its Web sites rather than the systems it uses in-house,
because the Web sites represent the "public face" of the agency.
The standards are likely to have a ripple effect on private
businesses, because the federal government is the largest purchaser of
information technology in the country, spending more than $38 billion
this year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Companies
that win government contracts will need to make those tech products
accessible to comply with the Rehabilitation Act.
Government estimates for the cost of revamping federal Web sites and
other technology to comply with the new standards range wildly, from
$85 million to $691 million, according to the Architectural and
Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.
Yet sites built from scratch or those that are redesigned will not
incur many new costs, said Judy Brewer, director of the Web
Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, an
international organization that sets Internet standards.
"If you've got a small site or a simple site, there's very little
you've got to do to make the site accessible," said Brewer.
Retooling sites filled with data-heavy charts and large graphics and
making changes to intricate software programs, however, could be a
Just as federal buildings boast ramps for people in wheelchairs,
government Web sites soon must offer alternatives for people who
cannot see multi-tiered charts or hear online interviews with agency
leaders. Many blind people use electronic devices that read aloud text
and captions that appear on a computer screen. But the screen readers
can stumble over pictures and graphics, as well as links to other
parts of the site.
To solve the problem, programmers will need to create "text only"
versions of Web sites or to better explain in words the information
that charts and photos convey. They'll also need to break up unwieldy
tables filled with government statistics into bite-sized chunks of
information. Streaming video excerpts will require captions for the
The issue of access to the Internet for disabled users has picked up
steam in recent months, as President Clinton celebrated the 10th
anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July.
Under the new Rehabilitation Act standards, people who are
dissatisfied with agency efforts to achieve IT accessibility can file
lawsuits or lodge administrative complaints with federal agencies.
Jennifer Mechem, a disability policy coordinator in the Education
Department's office of management, said her agency has been moving
toward accessible software for three years. She said Education is not
paying extra for software, but leaders there are spending more time on
"The cycle of IT is so quick that we're going to be using different
software in two or three years anyway," Mechem said.
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