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World Wide Web access and information apartheid

The Web does largely live up to its overblown billing as an equal-opportunity information source. It's impossible, for example, to directly discriminate against, say, blacks or Jews in the provision of Web information; anyone with basic equipment can load a Web page and understand its content, right? Wrong.

With the possible exception of the VHS/Super-VHS discrepancy, the Web is the first information technology that can actively deny access to the information it otherwise contains even if you own the right equipment. Buy a black-and-white TV and you can still watch programs transmitted in colour. Buy a 1996-era Power Mac and, with some jigging, you can still read files created on an original Mac 128. But buy a computer and secure an Internet account and it is quite possible that you will not be able to gain access to large chunks of information on the Web.

To experience this for yourself (if you don't experience it already), spend a week-- not 10 minutes, a week-- looking at Web sites, including your own, with graphics turned off. Better yet, use Lynx, a text-only Web browser. (If you don't have it on your system, choose a public Lynx site and use a copy there.) Surprise! You can generally find text to read at nearly any Web page, but navigating around graphics- and frames-intensive Web sites varies from frustrating to impossible.

This may seem like an academic issue, because, as we know, everyone uses Netscape or Internet Explorer and everyone uses graphics. Again, wrong. News flash: Blind and visually-impaired people are very much online. No one, not even maintainers of mailing lists populated mostly by blind people, can estimate the number of blind people online, but they certainly number in the thousands. (There are half a dozen or so developers of screen readers, enlargement programs, and other adaptive technology for blind computer users. There's clearly a market out there.) Also, depending on whose estimates you believe, anywhere from 20% to 40% of sighted Web users leave graphics turned off (usually for quicker response times) or use Lynx. Do you know of any industry that can afford to alienate 20% to 40% of its potential customers?

Information apartheid is very much in place on the Web. And that's untenable.

Access has other implications online. Audioclips are inaccessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing netters, videoclips inaccessible to blind and to deaf people. And there's what could be called version accessibility: If you create a site using HTML/Netscape 3 and later extensions (frames, tables, fonts, backgrounds, animated GIFs, the whole nine yards) and fail to provide parallel sites for people using earlier browsers, you are again actively telling such visitors that you don't want them around your site.

And most Web designers commit those sins merely to be cool. I've seen scarcely any sites that aptly and appropriately use frames, for example, or even tables.

How did this inaccessibility take root?

Web developers, as a group, are hotshots and greenhorns with little experience with the broader world and, like many ingénues, have trouble imagining how people unlike themselves live their lives. (They may all preach antiracism, antihomophobia, and the like, because those social causes are well established in liberal society. Disability, however, baffles and frightens people.) It simply does not occur to Web designers that someone online might not be able to see, or uses Lynx over a 9,600-bps connection on an IBM XT, or simply chooses to use Netscape 1.1 with graphics turned off. And these Webheads, who also generally lack print literacy (ask some copy-editors what they think of the articles available online), are by definition too caught up with the novelty, urgency, excitement, and sexiness of the technology to give a damn about marginal minority groups like blind people, the poor, or contrarians who refuse to get with the program and run an HTML 3-compatible browser on a computer that's just as powerful as the Webheads' own.

What are Web designers saying about access?

Well, try this response on for size. It's from A Major Web-Page Developer.

It's not an easy area to work in, agreed. But we are not ignorant of the fact that there are people out there who cannot access at least some of the information that is available on the Web. We are less concerned with the contrarians who, out of their own choosing, use older software and hardware. We are more concerned with the issues around physical disabilities and access to information. [...]

Our designs are driven by our clients. Options about accessibility are presented to them as the site is designed. This means things like making a text-only version of the site or not using niche software like Java or Shockwave. But, as you must be aware, the client and their representatives are the ones who choose what we design.

In this light I think that your observations and serivces would be well directed if you were to approach the business world at large.

In other words, we'll let clients discriminate if they want to.

Here's a quote from Michael Macrone, a Web designer working on @tlas magazine's Web site:

Anyone who is interested in aesthetics on the Web will have Netscape or at least a compatible browser like Internet Explorer. I hate to exclude those coming on the Web through AOL, but it's the choice you have to make. If you want to design something that looks really nice, you'll have to write off a certain percentage of the audience.

Translated, this means "Our pages look so nice that you kids on the wrong side of the tracks can't look at 'em!" (See Step-by-Step Graphics, September/October 1996, p. 89.)

What's the solution?

In broad terms, there is none. The Web is now quite inaccessible to all the groups I've discussed and, in general, always will be. (After 50 years, TV is still mostly inaccessible to deaf people and very inaccessible to blind people.) However, in narrower terms, there are things that can be done. There's a broad corpus of information available online (see below) and in the minds of people like me about how Web sites could be designed to accommodate nearly everyone. There are ways to make graphics, audio, and video accessible, and those access technologies offer other advantages: Create the right kind of text-only analogues of graphics, videoclips, or audioclips and boom, you've got a file that can be searched, uploaded, indexed, or simply made available to anyone who prefers text to graphics. There are ways to make Web pages accessible to users whose browsers understand incompatible levels of HTML.

But no one is doing it. No Web-design consultancy anywhere has committed to accessibility. Only a few demonstration sites on the Web (see WGBH) feature any kind of access technique. And remember, I'm talking about expanding a market here, or, more accurately, encompassing the entire market that the Web allegedly serves.

You've got to start somewhere, so start here

In the spirit of consciousness-raising, here are some links you can follow to learn more about access issues.