Web Content Takes the Access Ramp: Designing Sites with Accessibility in Mind

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Remodeling for Accessibility
You probably do not want to wait until you have legal problems to make your Web content accessible, but if you have a large site or a great deal of existing content online, knowing where to start can be a daunting task. Back in 2001, Thomson NETg had 2,000 courses in place when they moved to make the content Section 508-compliant.

When they looked at those 2,000 courses, Neri says, they really didn't know where to start, so they called in TecAccess to help them. They began with just a few courses and built from there. Rhu says that you do what you must to make the content compliant and then make a long-range plan to tackle other issues. "NETg had over 2,000 courses, so we just had to begin and as we walked down the path we learned a lot. And as technology advanced, we found better ways to do it," she says. 

Given the choice, most experts recommend starting an accessible design from scratch, but in the real world there are many companies in the same position as NETg, which have a boat-load of content that they want (or need) to make accessible. While it's more difficult to retrofit accessibility, companies have to start somewhere, then build it into the process. Today, TecAccess and Thomson NETg have established practices for all new NETg content. "With NETg, we trained developers and built style guides and policies and procedures right in, to help ensure that accessibility was built into process," Rhu says. 

Neri says his group is also acting as lead for other Thomson organizations that want to make their content accessible. Karen Beauregard, an account manager at TecAccess who wrote the ALT text guidelines for NETg, says this is a common practice, which could extend to partner companies. "Many people started with 508, and after they made this change internally, they made the demand on their partners," she said. 

In fact, NETg has plans to move beyond Section 508 by forming a user advisory group to help guide it toward even greater accessibility. "One of the next phases is to develop an advisory council from the end-user space to provide further feedback about how we are meeting their needs," Neri says.  

Making Web site content accessible may require some help, but in the long run it will be good for your business because it ensures that most people can use your Web site, regardless of their ability. When it comes down to it, you have to take the first step, evaluate what needs to be done, make the changes, then develop policies and procedures to ensure that all your content is accessible in the future. Not only is it the law for many, accessible content is just good business.

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Jim Thatcher

Thomson NETg


Sidebar: Accessibility With Flash
Michael A. Jordan, a Flash developer at Houghton Mifflin, has worked for several years producing accessible content in Flash. He says that Flash gets a bad rap in the accessibility community, because earlier versions of Flash weren't accessible through screen readers, but over the last several years that has changed. Jordan says there is no reason why developers cannot make Flash content accessible and he expects that any Flash application should be accessible using a keyboard and assistive technologies such as a screen reader. "My view is that for any sort of content you put on the Web, you should try to make it possible for the widest audience to use it. While Flash started as a vector-based animation tool, in more recent history, it has been used much more for user interfaces, where they are much more like a desktop application," Jordan says.

For example, if a developer creates an interface with buttons, it is possible to make those buttons accessible using the keyboard. Jordan himself has designed extremely sophisticated, accessible Flash applications such as a crossword puzzle. He says part of the challenge was providing an interface where you could input the answers to clues so that a user with screen reader could hear the same information as a sighted user was seeing. He said he had to ask himself, "How can I communicate as much information about a clue as possible to make it possible for someone to play this?" What he thought about was how you would do a crossword puzzle with a friend, and then he built this type of assistance into the crossword puzzle so the screen reader software updated dynamically as the user enters more information. He says it was a tremendous challenge, but it is the type of thinking people should be doing when designing in Flash.

He says that once you start thinking along these lines, over time you build it into the development process. "It does require additional thought, but once you start thinking that way, it becomes easier and a lot more natural to say, ‘OK, this is something I have to do,'" he says.

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