The Internet and People with Disabilities: Expanding Horizons or Barrier to Information and Services?

Michael BURKS <>
Pauline AGUILAR <>
International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet

Jose Luis PARDOS <>
Ambassador of Spain to Denmark

Cynthia WADDELL <>
City of San Jose, California

Masafumi NAKANE <>
Web Accessibility Initiative



The objective of the panel will be to bring awareness to the general audience of what issues exist for the people with disabilities and why access to the Internet is so important to them. It will also present many important initiatives, laws, and activities dealing with these issues in various parts of the global Internet community.


With more and more information and services available over the Internet, it is imperative that no culture or element of society be left out. People with disabilities are offered unprecedented opportunities to access information and services over the Internet. But there are also barriers to this access.

This panel will explore how people with disabilities are using the Internet to access information and services and what barriers they face in doing so.

The movement for accessible Web sites and Internet services is growing. One need look no further than the growing initiatives around the world. There has been a great deal of activity in Europe in the past several months. This is one indicator of the growing awareness of these issues.

As the world population ages, the number of disabilities can be expected to increase. Indeed, by the year 2020 there will be more than 1 billion people aged 60 or over. As the population ages, some of the most frequent problems are low vision and blindness. Blindness and vision impairment now affect about 180 million people worldwide. [1]

Blindness presents one of the greatest accessibility challenges. There are others, but blindness and low vision are the ones that present some of the most imposing accessibility issues we face today.

It is apparent that accessibility issues are not going to disappear; they will only grow more intense as the disabled population grows and the Internet and information technology pervades our society. The answer is to deal with these issues and not to ignore them.

The Panel will explore what is going on in various places in the world, and how barriers are being met and overcome. It will not explore these issues from an in-depth technical perspective, but will address them from a societal point of view. Please feel free to bring your perspective to the panel and make us aware of issues not presented here.

How people with disabilities use the Internet


It should come as no surprise that people with disabilities for the most part use the Internet in the same way everyone else does. They surf the Web looking for items of interest, use newsgroups, send e-mail, purchase items of interest, and research topics for which they need information. The difference is that many of the millions of people with disabilities face special difficulties in using the technology that is needed to access the Internet. The difficulties are varied and diverse because of the wide variety of disabilities that occur in the human population. Some are physical, and some are cognitive; all can be debilitating.


The World Health Organization estimates the world's disability population to be between 7 and 10%. This means that over 500 million people in the world are disabled. It is estimated that 80% of these live in developing countries. [2] In developing countries difficulties accessing the Internet are already apparent. Many of these problems are related to low-bandwidth issues. These issues are closely related to the issues that many people with disabilities are facing accessing the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular.


As has been mentioned previously there are several salient issues for people with disabilities and Web site accessibility. The most important is of course not being able to use content on Web sites because of the way it is presented. The largest segment of the population thus affected is the blind and vision impaired. However, as multimedia presentations become more prevalent on the Web, people with other types of disabilities are being affected.


One of the great advantages of the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular is the availability of huge amounts of information. This is a boon to everyone; however, if you are disabled in ways that make it difficult to move around, it is a particular advantage. For this reason it is critical that the Internet remain as accessible as possible to the largest number of people.


The World Wide Web was originally conceived as a research tool. It should come as no surprise that it is widely used for the same purpose today. More and more information is available over the Web with every passing day. For that reason alone it is important that the information and the search tools that help people access it should be accessible to people with disabilities. If the information and the tools to access it are not usable by people with disabilities, these people will be denied participation in the digital economy. [11]

Disability issues

The number of sites devoted to disability issues is growing. Some of these sites address specific areas while others attempt to create large collections of data encompassing all the disability issues. Some organizations such as the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet will research issues that are not addressed on their sites.

There are now sites that are devoted to specific disability issues such as travel, news, funding issues, health issues, and other such topics. There are also mailing lists, chat rooms, newsgroups, and other Internet resources that are devoted to disability issues. In some cases these are not accessible to people with disabilities.

Electronic commerce

As electronic commerce in all of its various forms expands onto the Web, replacing traditional forms of commerce, it is important to remember the critical nature of keeping it accessible to people with disabilities.

The convenience of being able to order goods and services over the Internet is especially important for people who are disabled. Many types of disability create mobility problems. The ability to order and receive these goods without the usual problems involved is a particularly good development for many disabled shoppers. If the Web sites are not accessible to these people, an important feature of electronic commerce will be withheld from them. Shopping, banking, finance, and government transactions such as filing tax returns online are just a few of the emerging services in the electronic commerce arena. All of these must be accessible to people with disabilities for them to participate in the digital economy. [20]


Another particularly attractive and helpful service for many people with disabilities would be education over the Internet. Properly constructed and presented, this could prove a great advantage for people with disabilities. While some groups are making strides in ensuring that distance education is accessible, the only state regulations in this area are from the state of California. [16] There is still much work to be done in this area and hopefully the advantages will become apparent to educators in the near future.

Building an accessible e-commerce site: case study

Included will be a case study of what is involved in building an accessible electronic commerce site. This will include the process from design to production.

Web accessibility issues

Accessibility defined

Accessibility is simply the concept that the largest audience possible will be able to use a Web site regardless of disability. This is tied to the concept of universal design as the basis for the design of all goods and services.

Feature accessibility

The most visible of the Internet features is the World Wide Web; however, other features such as newsgroups, chat, and e-mail must also be accessible. To a greater degree than the Web, accessibility of these features is determined by the client. It is, however, important to remember that features such as e-mail can contain HTML and that this can make things inaccessible.

New technology

Accessibility is a moving target. As new technologies are rightfully integrated into the Internet, it is important to take the steps necessary to keep these features accessible to the largest audience possible.

Bandwidth constraints

In many places in the world, bandwidth is still a serious consideration. Speeds are still quite low (below 14.4 K) and it is expensive to connect to the Internet. In areas such as these, many users find they cannot afford to access the Web using graphics so they turn them off. In these cases you will find that many accessibility issues for low-bandwidth areas are the same as the issues for blind and visually impaired users.

Practical application: screen reader demonstration

There will be a demonstration of a screen reader for the audience. It will detail exactly what is heard by a blind or vision-impaired user who is employing a screen reader. It will also point out some of the main problem areas on Web pages.

ISTF activity

The Internet Societal Task Force, which is part of the Internet Society, has formed a Working Group to address accessibility issues for people with disabilities. An update of this working group's activities will be presented at the panel session.

W3C initiative

Much of the base work on Web accessibility has been initiated by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C. For the past several years they have researched, codified, and encouraged people to make their Web sites accessible. They have produced guidelines that help to produce accessible Web sites and they continue to conduct research into how to make Web sites accessible. They have extensive references on their Web site. [7]

Legal issues in the U.S. and Canada

As the digital economy expands on a global level many legal issues will be involved. One of the most interesting will be accessibility to this economy for people with disabilities. The issues are beginning to appear in many places. Some of the first appeared in the USA and Canada. Below are some developments and the basis for accessibility rights in these two countries.

It should be further noted, as Cynthia Waddell has pointed out, that "Multiple Methods for Access Benefit Everyone" and that the more accessible the digital economy is to people with disabilities, the more accessible it will be to all. [11]

Recent developments

AOL suit

AOL is facing a lawsuit as to whether or not it should make its access software usable by people who are blind and vision impaired. More details on this action will be presented at the panel session.

Congressional hearings

It is confirmed that the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution is planning a hearing on February 9 regarding the application of Title III of the ADA to the Internet.

There is an article in the Disability Rights Nation News regarding this matter.

"A Feb. 9 hearing slated for the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution may set the stage for an industry-wide attack on the Americans with Disabilities Act's protection of access to the Internet." The rest of the article can be found at

The memo written by Paul Taylor who is the counsel for the subcommittee on the Constitution for the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives can be found at http: // It is addressed to Mr. Charles T. Canady (R-FL), Chairman of the Committee. This memo should be read carefully as experts point out there are what appear to be glaring errors in the claims made about the cost of accessible Web sites.

The latest developments on this hearing and any subsequent hearings will be included in the panel session.

Examples of current U.S. accessibility initiatives and legal basis

U.S. federal

Three of the U.S. federal laws cited and used the most often in the discussion of accessibility for information technology for people with disabilities are explained below. They are by no means the only laws that apply to this subject but they are three of the most cited.

U.S. states

Many U.S. states have taken the initiative to make Web sites more accessible. In part this is due to the provisions of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. This act extends the requirements that state government follow basically the same guidelines for making sure that information technology used by the states is accessible to people with disabilities. Specific efforts by some of the states are detailed below.


The Chancellor's Office of California Community Colleges issued Distance Education Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities in August 1999. These guidelines have been issued to ensure that distance education in the community college system in California is accessible to people with disabilities. As far as is known this is the first set of specific accessibility guidelines issued for distance education in this country by a state. [16]

New York

The state of New York has issued a policy to make all state Web sites accessible to people with disabilities. They have issued a formal policy to this effect through the Office of Technology. [17]

North Carolina

The state of North Carolina has commissioned a group to study and recommend actions on how to make all the state's information technology accessible to people with disabilities. The announcement was made in September 1999.


Texas is investigating the feasibility of using electronic textbooks for students who are blind or vision impaired. [18]

Current Canadian accessibility initiatives

The Government of Canada Internet Guide has an extensive chapter on building accessible Web sites. This guide is designed to give instructions on building government Web sites that are accessible to the largest number of people possible -- disabled or not. This is yet another example of the growing understanding of the need to make Web sites accessible to all. [19]

A European perspective

In the past year there has been extensive activity in Europe regarding Web site accessibility and access to the digital world. This activity is documented below. It demonstrates that for people with disabilities the idea of Web site accessibility, Internet accessibility, and access to the digital economy is gaining acceptance in many places.


In the Republic of Ireland the Department of Taoiseach and Government Information Services have launched guidelines for the building of public sector Web sites. The guidelines were officially launched on 16 November 1999. They set out all the guidelines for public sector Web sites within the Republic of Ireland and include an extensive section on accessibility. [6]


In France, BrailleNet has launched a national campaign to promote the accessibility of the Internet. Among other things they are making conference presentations, sending letters to webmasters, and contacting politicians. A detailed discussion of their campaign can be found at the CSUN proceedings, located at

Further developments on this campaign will be presented at this Panel Session.


Great progress is being made in formulating a government information technology policy to include people with disabilities. This plan is being formulated to include all types of information, not just web-based. It is an extensive and ongoing project. It shows great understanding of the concept of including everyone in the digital economy. [5]

United Kingdom

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 seeks to ensure equality for people with disabilities in the United Kingdom. This includes the accessibility of government Web sites and eventually could force accessibility across the board on Web sites in the United Kingdom. In October 1999, sections of the act came into force which will require service providers to make adjustments for people with disabilities. This should include Internet service providers as well as other types of service providers. [4]


Francisco Godinho and the PASIG successfully petitioned and obtained a commitment on Web site accessibility from the government of Portugal. Accessibility is now mandatory in Portugal for public and administrative Web sites. This action is unprecedented in Europe and may lead to other European nations adopting similar policies.

This petition received support from many groups, including the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and the Internet Society's Internet Societal Task Force.

European Union

Francisco Godinho of PASIG has offered a draft petition for web accessibility within the European Union with a request for comments at

The main purpose of this petition is, as quoted from the above URL: "eEurope -- An Information Society for All," which proposes: "By the end of 2001: The European Commission and Member States should commit themselves to making the design and content of all public Web sites accessible to people with disabilities."

This petition has received support from many groups including the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and the Internet Society's Internet Societal Task Force. The meeting to which this petition refers was scheduled for March 2000. An update of the results will be presented at this panel session.

Mailing list

A mailing list to discuss the European issues has been started. It was launched on 27 December 1999. This is an active, ongoing discussion dealing with Internet accessibility issues in a European context.

The list and all of its postings can be found at Many of the problems discussed are not directly web-related but nonetheless it offers people an opportunity to discuss the problems people with disabilities are facing in Europe.

Australian initiatives

In Australia there has been much progress on Web site accessibility for people with disabilities. The Disabilities Discrimination Act of 1992 has helped pave the way to making information technology more accessible to people with disabilities. [22] Furthermore the government of Australia has been quite forward in publishing material dealing with accessibility of electronic commerce [20] and of information technology. [21]

Australia is one of the most progressive nations in the world when it comes to accessibility of electronic information.

Asian activities

Growth of the Internet


The country of Singapore has always been sensitive to the needs of its disabled citizens. It has created EnableNet which is an extensive collection of resources for people with disabilities on the Web. It is extensive and reveals a country that values every citizen and intends to help all of them lead useful and productive lives. [23] It contains a great deal of useful information and is updated on a regular basis. It is always worth a visit.

Their example should be an inspiration to the rest of the world.


During the past year the awareness of accessibility issues has grown in Japan. A research group hosted jointly by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication and the Ministry of Health and Welfare released a report on promotion of technologies that support the disabled and the aged, including issues surrounding the accessibility of the Internet. This was one of the first publications from any governmental organization that explicitly mentioned accessibility issues. Most of the essential checkpoints of the Web Accessibility Initiative content accessibility guidelines [7] were included. This was the first publication that mentioned the issue, and in that respect, it was very meaningful. But it does not have any law enforcement power and is not considered to be as important as it actually is.

China and "Miss Internet"

In November 1999, the contest in China to choose "Miss Internet" was shaken up by a 24-year-old temporarily disabled woman named Chen Fanhong, who eventually won the contest. It is clear that at least one person with a disability demonstrated the equality that can be realized over the Internet regardless of disability. [24]

Other parts of the world

While there is no specific accessibility activity going on in the areas of Africa and South America, it is worth noting that at the INET'99 tutorial on Accessibility of Web Sites, more than half the participants were from these parts of the world. They clearly stated their interest in accessible Web sites to make them usable by people with disabilities. However, they also clearly indicated that many of the techniques used in making Web sites accessible to people with disabilities are also useful for building Web sites that are to be viewed in low-bandwidth areas of the world. This is an important consideration, and should be carefully noted.

How caregivers can use the Internet

Caregivers for people with disabilities who know how to use the Internet are offered heretofore unprecedented access to many resources that can assist their clients.


The number of sites dealing with general disability issues and specific disabilities has grown enormously in the past several years. As with many other subjects, the amount of material online is astounding and it is growing every day. Caregivers who are familiar with the sites and how to search out the information they seek will have a great advantage.

Funding issues

There is much information available online about the funding of goods and services needed by people with disabilities. Caregivers who know where to look for this information and how to find it will be able to service their clients more efficiently and effectively.

Electronic commerce issues

As more and more goods and services come online, it should be expected that items and services needed by people with disabilities will become more available over the Internet. It will be possible to shop for specific items, compare prices, and purchase goods and services without ever leaving the computer. This will offer a wider choice to the consumer of these services and should save enormous amounts of time and effort for the caregivers.

A live demonstration of this activity will be provided at the panel session.


The Internet is growing at a rate higher than anyone could have predicted. Everyone including people with disabilities is using the Internet for purposes that were never envisioned. New technology is appearing all the time. These new uses for the Internet and the new technology present an ongoing challenge for everyone including those with disabilities. If people with disabilities are not included in the burgeoning world digital economy they will be left further behind than they are now. Any group not included in this economy will be highly disadvantaged and will not be able to fully participate in the growing prosperity. The loss of these opportunities will make a difficult existence even worse and prevent many from being productive members of society. [3]


  1. World Health Organization Fact Sheet
    Population Ageing: A Public Health Challenge
  2. World Health Organization Press Release WHO/683 December 1999
    WHO Director General Urges Comprehensive Agenda on Disability
  3. Access Board's Final Rule on Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996:
    Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines
  4. Disability Discrimination Act of 1995
  5. Freedom to Choose
    Action Plan for IT Use by People with Disabilities
  6. Taioseach Launches New Guidelines for User Friendly Public Sector Websites
  7. W3C Web Accessibility Initiative
  8. W3C WAI Policy References
    Policies Relating to Web Accessibility
  9. CAST - Bobby
  10. Applying the ADA to the Internet: A Web Accessibility Standard
    by Cynthia D. Waddell, JD
    ADA Coordinator, City of San Jose, CA USA

    byCynthia D. Waddell, JD
    ADA Coordinator, City of San Jose, CA USA
  12. Opinion issued by the US DOJ in September 1996 on Applying the ADA to Websites.
  13. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act 29 U.S.C. § 794(d)
  14. Is Your Site ADA-Compliant ... or a Lawsuit-in-Waiting?
    by Cynthia D. Waddell and Kevin Lee Thomason
  15. Assistive Technology Act of 1998
  16. Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities
    Chancellor's Office
    California Community Colleges
  17. New York State Office for Technology
    Technology Policy 99-3
  18. Chapter 5 in Texas Education Agency Report:
    Accessibility of Information in Electronic Textbooks
  19. Government of Canada Internet Guide
    Universal Accessibility
  20. Accessible E-Commerce in Australia
    Prepared by Tim Noonan
    SoftSpeak Computer Services
    On Behalf of Blind Citizens Australia
    With Funding from The Commonwealth Government's AccessAbility Grants Program
  21. Australian Online Accessibility Resource
  22. *Disability Discrimination Act 1992
  23. * EnableNet
    Created by The Disabled People's Association Singapore
  24. China's Idea of "Miss Internet"
    Published by Reuters 22 December 1999.