Volume IV Number 1, August 1997

World Wide Access: Focus on Libraries

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
Dan Comden
University of Washington

The dramatic growth of both electronic information sources and adaptive technology make it possible for libraries to serve visitors with disabilities as never before! Libraries can play a key role in increasing the independence, participation, and productivity of people with disabilities. Besides providing access to adaptive technology, they can help assure that their electronic resources are accessible when using that technology. This paper summarizes guidelines that can be employed to make electronic resources in libraries easier to use by patrons with a diverse set of characteristics. World Wide Web access issues are highlighted.

The varied features of the World Wide Web are attractive to a wide variety of users. Yet many Internet surfers are unable to view graphics and photos because of visual impairments, or cannot hear audio because of hearing impairments. If "universal design" principles are employed, all visitors to Web pages can access the content. Universal design means to concentrate on content rather than flashy graphics and audio and consider the full spectrum of potential users. Documents, menu items, graphics, video clips, and other materials are made as accessible as possible.

As a Web developer, you need to consider the diversity of people who may visit your Web pages. Some visitors:

Perhaps the most important consideration in designing Web pages is to make sure that a Web site visitor is not required to use a specific browser to access the information provided at that site. Today, numerous Web sites require the use of a particular version of Netscape. Although this is a popular browser, it is not the only option. For Web site developers, accessibility to the maximum number of potential customers should be a top priority. Many of the accessibility issues and tips described below make a favorable impression for all Web users, regardless of disabilities.

General Web Design Tips

* Maintain a simple, standard page layout throughout a document. Once a method of layout is determined for your page(s), stick with it. A consistent interface for your pages will make it easier for anyone contacting your site to find and access information. Buttons and navigational links should always appear in the same places (top, bottom or both) on a page, and headers should follow a consistent format.

Just about everyone benefits when Web developers follow this guideline, but particularly people with learning and visual impairments and for whom English is a second language. Consistency and simplicity are keys to accessibility.

* Use universally recognized HTML tags. Don't use formatting tags (such as BLINK) that are only supported by one Web browser. The HTML version 2.0 standard is the best bet for compatibility with a wide variety of Web browsers.

When Web designers follow this design principle, everyone using a text-based browser, particularly those who are blind, benefits.

* Test your pages with a variety of Web browsers. Test your Web pages on at least three different Web browsers. One of the browsers tested should be a text-based program such as Lynx. This testing will ensure that pages are accessible to people who may be using a different browser than you. If possible, also examine your pages using browsers on different platforms (e.g., Macintosh, PC and X).

Though it is possible, with some programming on the server side, to determine what browser someone is using and make certain types of information available, most developers do not have the resources available to do this.

All potential Web site visitors will benefit when this guideline is followed.

* Provide alternate text for browsers that can't display images. Many people cannot see pictures or drawings. This can be due to a disability or as a result of using a text-based browser. The tag when used with a graphic will allow a written description of the image to be conveyed to the user. The tag is an excellent way to make a graphical button accessible to those using text-based browsers. Also, for those developers using graphical bullets, an ALT tag can contain other text that provides a good alternative such as an asterisk or text.

Following this guideline benefits all Web site visitors who cannot see images, either because of blindness or because their Internet access method restricts them to using a text-based browser.

* Avoid using tables. Tables are not supported by all browsers and can be confusing for people using voice output to read text on the screen. Screen reading software cannot differentiate between columns so that text is read constantly from left to right.

Applying this guideline benefits anyone using a browser that doesn't support tables and anyone using voice output to read text.

* Avoid using a single mode of delivering information other than text. If information is to be conveyed using audio or video files, provide text alternatives. For example, if an audio file contains dialogue or lyrics, a transcript of the file will enable someone with a hearing impairment to access it. Also, video may contain information that can be provided in descriptive text form.

Web site visitors who may be blind and/or deaf benefit when this guideline is followed.

* Provide text alternatives to image maps. Image maps are graphics that contain multiple areas that, when selected with a mouse or other pointer, jump to another web page or section. The only method of making image maps accessible is to provide a text alternative.

Anyone using a browser without graphics capability, those who cannot see images, and users who have turned off loading of graphics all benefit when this guideline is followed.

* Don't use complicated backgrounds. Many backgrounds do not provide enough contrast for easy viewing. Users with visual impairments often invert their screen colors due to light sensitivity. Backgrounds and other formatting that changes the color of text can make a page inaccessible to someone with a visual impairment or for someone with a reading impairment. If a custom background must be used, select something that provides good contrast with your text.

Site visitors with visual impairments and people accessing via slower connections benefit when this guideline is followed.

When care is taken to assure that Web sites adhere to universal design principles, a larger audience of Internet users will be able to make use of the wealth of information resources on the Net. Libraries are in a unique position to demonstrate universal access features and to provide universal access to information resources, including those offered on the World Wide Web.

DO-IT Resources

A videotape and handout titled "World Wide Access" is available through the DO-IT program for $20. A good launching point to find resources for making accessible Web pages is the DO-IT HTML Guideline page at


DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. Additional funds for helping libraries make electronic resources accessible to people with disabilities are provided by the Telecommunications Funding Partnership.

DO-IT University of Washington 4545 15th. Avenue N.E. Seattle, WA 98105 Voice/TDD (206) 685-DOIT FAX (206) 685-4045 doit@u.washington.edu http://weber.u.washington.edu/~doit

This paper, which was delivered at the California State University Northridge Conference "Where Assistive Technology Meets the Information Age" (March 18 - 22, 1997) is reprinted, with permission of CSUN's Founder and Director, Harry J. Murphy, Ed.D.

Burgstahler, S. & Comden, D. (1997). World wide access: Focus on libraries. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(1).