An Information Society for All?

Dr. Barry McMullin
Research Institute for Networks and
Communications Engineering (RINCE)
Dublin City University

20th November 2001
[Document also available in PDF Format.]

If anybody asks me what the Internet means to me, I will tell him without hesitation: To me (a quadriplegic) the Internet occupies the most important part in my life. It is my feet that can take me to any part of the world; it is my hands which help me to accomplish my work; it is my best friend - it gives my life meaning.
Dr. ZhangXu

The explosive arrival of the Internet as a mass communication medium makes it a little difficult to see it yet in full perspective, or to properly gauge its impact. For most of us it is at least a somewhat useful tool, giving more immediate access to many information sources and services. It is also often awkward and frustrating--with slow responses, complex and confusing interactions, incompatible software requirements, and all the other trimmings of any brash and immature technology.

But for many people with disabilities the Internet is more than just another technological toy--it can offer the potential for significant improvement in their access to products and services that the able bodied community take for granted. Here are a few brief examples:

Other more elaborated and detailed scenarios are available in an illuminating guide to How People with Disabilities Use the Web, currently available in draft form from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

However, as that document also makes clear, while the Internet opens up very promising new possibilities for supporting and including disabled users in the benefits of the emerging information society, these outcomes are by no means automatic: they rely on the services and facilities being designed in an inclusive way that supports and facilitates all categories of users.

To give a more familiar example: wheelchairs are an assistive technology with the potential to dramatically improve the mobility of people with specific physical disabilities. However, if buildings are designed without ramps or accessible lifts and doors, then the effectiveness of a wheelchair is, of course, dramatically reduced.

In the same way, assistive technologies such as speech synthesizers, alternative keyboard and pointing devices, voice recognisers etc., can all help people with various disabilities to access computer devices in general, and to access the Internet in particular. But if Internet services are not designed in such a way as to facilitate and inter-operate with these assistive devices, then their benefit may be sharply reduced.

Here is a simple - and pervasive - example. Many web sites are enriched with graphical icons for various functions, such as searching and navigation. This immediately presents a potential difficulty for a blind user, who, of course, cannot see these icons. While a speech sythesizer can automatically read out any text on the page, it cannot in general recognise or describe arbitrary images in any meaningful way. Fortunately there is a trivial way of resolving this. The underlying HTML format of web pages makes provision for attaching "alternative" or ALT text to images. This is generally hidden if the image is displayed or visible to the user; but it can be picked up and spoken by the speech synthesizer for a blind user. But this relies on the designer of the web site understanding this potential need, and adding these hidden textual labels for images and icons. The extra effort involved is entirely trivial - but dramatically improves the usability of the site for the affected users.

There are many other ways in which web sites and services can be designed in an inclusive way that attempts to facilitate, as far as possible, access by all users regardless of disability or the need for particular assistive technologies. These have been codified in various guidelines formulated by W3C - in particular, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

While compliance to such guidelines is essentially voluntary at the moment, this is likely to evolve on an ongoing basis. The EU eEurope Action Plan, published last year, makes a commitment to the adoption and (ultimately) application of the WCAG guidelines to all publicly funded web sites in Europe. It has also been suggested that a forthcoming Irish Disability Act may make explicit provisions in this area.

In the meantime there are many immediate tasks to work on. For the past year, a research project has been under way at DCU, sponsored by AIB, to specifically evaluate the current state of web accessibility of Irish web sites, concentrating on the needs of visually impaired users. The project primarily involves developing and deploying tools to evaluate and audit the accessibility of such sites, and to pool and collate the outcomes. Much of the infrastructural work is now complete and it is hoped that concrete, benchmark, results will be available early in 2002. This data will then provide a basis for discussing policy and formulating initiatives to ensure that the benefits of the Information Society can genuinely be shared by the whole community.

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