Professor explains how to create Web sites to accomodate visually impaired

The College held its first Web site symposium of the year on Oct. 17 in Holman Hall, hosted by Christopher Ault, assistant professor of interactive multimedia. The symposium highlighted the importance of accessible Web site designs that were both easy to navigate for the visually impaired and looked good for those who are not.

Web accessibility is the level of ease with which a Web site can be viewed and used by a full range of Web surfers, although designing a Web site in an accessible manner is harder than it seems, according to Ault.

“Accessible design is a creative challenge,” Ault said.

Utilizing HTML and cascading style sheets (CSS), Ault demonstrated the ways he transformed Nokia’s Web site into a highly accessible site for everyone involved. Ault said that Web sites, especially ones that are subsidized by or are connected to the government in any way, need to conform to certain guidelines and regulations that have been put into place. The government in 1998 presented Section 508, a law mandating the complete accessibility of Web sites that are linked in any way to the government.

What Ault did for Nokia was test their page and make sure they were up to standard with Section 508 and other guidelines governing the format of Web sites. He did that by using built-in features found in Mozilla like the Web developer toolbar where he can disable JavaScript or images.

The browser also reverts HTML code to alt text, which shows the wording that appears in HTML format over pictures that speech programs read to describe the picture out loud.

But letting a computer assess a Web page for accessibility isn’t enough.

“The real part is sitting down with your page and . making common sense judgment calls, asking, ‘Am I giving people good access to my site?'” Ault said.

Another accessibility strategy used alongside correct HTML and CSS formatting is a technique called liquid design. This is a design that stretches and adapts to different screen sizes. According to Ault, people with a print background have a tendency to “lock things down,” which means they set the tables and images on their pages to fit a certain parameter, which is not accommodating. A personal touch that Ault employed was the seamless splicing of a picture that allowed it to accommodate almost any screen size or reconfiguration, which means that it will work on your home computer the exact same way that it will work on your cell phone (provided your phone can handle it).

An additional method Ault used to make interaction between text readers and the Web site easier was the use of hidden HTML that the reader program can pick up but will never be seen by the viewer’s eye.

“The way most of us experience a web site is much different than the way a screen reader experiences it,” Ault said. “It used to be that sites were accessible, or that sites looked nice. Now we can combine the two.”

Ault prefers the Mozilla or Safari browsers over Internet Explorer, citing the lack of accessibility Internet Explorer offers as the reason. Also, for students at the College interested in designing Web sites, programs like Expressions are available.