USU researchers are working to help web developers make their websites accessible for all people, regardless of [dis]ability

by Kinsey Love

Step back for a minute and imagine getting on the Internet and waiting for the homepage to appear. When it does, the text is too small for you to read, and you cannot see part of the screen. So you magnify the page, but the words and links become so pixilated that you can’t make out what they say.

You try scrolling around the page to find a link that you can actually recognize, but the information is scattered so far across the magnified page that you can’t find anything of use. At this point, you can’t move forward to another, more user-friendly page, because you can’t find any comprehensible links on this one.

This is similar to what people with glaucoma or macular degeneration deal with every day. People who suffer from severe sight impairments may have tunnel vision, blind spots, or distorted vision, so busy and crowded web pages cause a lot of trouble for them. Others who are fully blind, suffer from hearing impairments, have a loss of fine motor skills, or even have cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia or learning impairments, deal with many of the same frustrations created by web sites that are not designed to be accessible for all users.

Web accessibility is a major issue for millions of people every day worldwide. Researcher Cyndi Rowland and her team at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities are working to alleviate these difficulties. They hope to “expand the potential of the web for people with disabilities by providing the knowledge, technical skills, tools, organizational leadership strategies, and vision that empower organizations to make their own content accessible to people with disabilities,” reads their mission statement.

“The Internet is a powerful tool, and all people deserve access to it,” said Rowland, “and we believe that all means all.” As associate director of the CPD, Rowland is passionate about helping web developers create a user-friendly environment on the Internet for people of all abilities.
In response to this need, Rowland and her colleagues created WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) in 1999. Like most research projects, WebAIM began simply, but has expanded significantly over the past decade. The program started out as a federal grant with Rowland and a few others working to create accessible web content in a post-secondary setting. Since then, the program has expanded to become a renowned instrument for web accessibility nationally and internationally. Now, it also brings in revenue through services such as accessibility evaluations, accessible web site designs, and WebAIM training materials and workshops.

“WebAIM is an answer to the challenge of accessibility that all web developers face,” said Rowland. “We address how to develop web pages to accommodate those who are blind or have vision impairments, are deaf or hard of hearing, have limited fine motor skills, have cognitive learning issues, or have age-related degenerations.”

WebAIM has become an umbrella program that incorporates all of the projects and programs that are offered by Rowland’s group. WebAIM itself is composed of research, services, training, and tool development.  All WebAIM grants and contracts generate knowledge about, or services for, web accessibility. Its web site, webaim.org, makes information available free to the public. This information includes tutorials on specific issues in accessible web design, tips and techniques for evaluating your web site for accessibility, newsletters detailing current trends, and comment boards where users can share their knowledge on the subject. The public can also find training opportunities or workshops offered by WebAIM staff.

“We have seen the results of WebAIM grow, and it is impressive,” said Rowland. Today, when “web accessibility” is Googled, the WebAIM site is the third link out of 36 million hits. Along with that, one of the free programs for evaluating accessibility offered on the WebAIM web site, called WAVE (see wave.webaim.org), is currently being used to test nearly 3,000 pages every day. Companies such as Amazon, IBM, and Mozilla, and governments groups such as the State of Oklahoma and the U.S. Social Security Administration have requested training or custom materials on web accessibility from WebAIM. “We have found that accessibility benefits everyone,” said Rowland, and the far-reaching influence of WebAIM has proven this to be true.

WebAIM is not the only program that Rowland works with to create digital accessibility. She is also working with the NCDAE, or the National Center on Disability and Access to Education where she is the technology director. This center addresses the accessibility needs that technologies create in the education sector, whether they are part of the Internet or not. For example, the Adobe Connect program uses the Internet to connect students to instructors and peers through the use of video conferencing.  Other technologies, such as iPods, which are not internet-based, are becoming a commonly used tool in education settings. Technologies like these, and many others, can create challenges for some with disabilities in education.

The NCDAE and WebAIM have expanded their joint efforts with the recent funding of two separate projects. The first, Steppingstones of Technology, is developing a tool that web developers can use to evaluate the accessibility of web pages for users who have cognitive or learning disabilities such as memory loss, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder. Rowland’s team is collaborating with industry leader Adobe to develop web accessibility tools that will be integrated into their popular Dreamweaver authoring tool.

Rowland is also heading a project called Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-study  (GOALS), which is a project that encourages entire postsecondary settings, such as Utah State University, to make all institutional web sites accessible for all people, rather than just some of them. Research done by the GOALS staff has shown that 97 percent of their sample of institutional web pages contained accessibility issues that would impact people with disabilities. The GOALS staff is currently working to create a series of white papers detailing the rationale for institutional accessibility for several audiences—from university presidents and provosts to faculties. They have developed best practice indicators for institutional self-study and other materials to be used to improve the accessibility of the entire campus web.  Creating accessibility across a system such as USU not only aids in web accessibility from laptops and desktops, but it also benefits those who access the web from mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs.

“Web accessibility is a big issue, and we have had a great team to work on these projects,” said Rowland. The senior members of the WebAIM team are Jared Smith, associate director; Johnathan Whiting, director of training and evaluation; and Aaron Andersen, lead software engineer.

“We just want to share information about web accessibility wherever we can, because in today’s society everyone deserves to be able to use the power of the Internet in their life.”