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Creating an Accessible Internet

By Mary Barros-Bailey <barrosm@micron.net>, Pauline G. Aguilar
<copper11@aol.com>, and Michael R. Burks <mburks952@att.net>

The Internet as a source of information is growing at a rate almost beyond comprehension. It is without question the greatest and most accessible collection of resources in history. And though it is widely accepted that navigating the seemingly endless resources contained on the Internet is no easy feat for even the most experienced Internet user, for those with disabilities, the challenges are especially daunting. While the most formidable task today may be presenting information in a manner that meets the accessibility needs of people using screen readers, the overarching issue is making everything on the Internet usable by the widest audience possible.

This article discusses the ongoing work of Mary Barros-Bailey, Michael R. Burks, and Pauline Aguilar. Barros-Bailey is the author of the book Internet Disabilities Resources, an extensive and exhaustive collection of disability resources available on the Internet. The first part of this article reflects the efforts and techniques Barros-Bailey used to write her book. The second and third parts reflect the efforts of Pauline Aguilar, who, with the help of Michael Burks, is creating a database of disabilities resources on the Internet.

Collecting the Resources
By Mary Barros-Bailey

Several years ago, when I was beginning to conduct extensive research on Internet resources for people with disabilities, I encountered a man with severe cerebral palsy who had just entered the so-called cyberworld. His disability rendered him nonverbal and immobile without assistance. His writing revealed him to be bright and articulate. He had at some point obtained a journalism degree, but had not worked in that field or any other field. His passion was history.

His entrance onto the Internet opened doors and allowed him to walk through them in ways he never dreamed possible. He could now walk through any number of museums in the world, tour places of great historical significance, and communicate with people from Buffalo to Bangkok. This new world, which many of us without disabilities take for granted, was to him nothing short of utopia. Those on the receiving end of his electronic communications judge him by the merit of his writing—his strength—and not by the way he looks and what he cannot do. On the Internet, people do not steal uncomfortable glances at him, treat him like a child, or ignore him because they are unable to deal with his disability. He is on equal footing with everyone else.

Or is he? The opportunities the Internet provides for people with disabilities are truly amazing. And yet, accessibility issues persist. Because of his spasticity and functional limitations, my friend had considerable difficulty typing. A simple e-mail message could take 10 minutes or longer to compose. From his very small town in northern Idaho, he not only faced issues within the new medium, but he also had little knowledge about how to get around them. I referred him to an assistive-technology center in Spokane, Washington, where he could get help finding better equipment to assist him in more comfortably striding through the halls of the National Archives from his wheelchair.

While I am not a technologist, I care about making the world as accessible to my mother with mobility impairments, my niece with learning disabilities, or my client with traumatic brain injuries as it is for me. Often, when I speak before peers, I finish my presentation by emphasizing Internet accessibility. My peers deal with accessibility issues and accommodations or retrofitting daily because of their work as vocational rehabilitation counselors, rehabilitation nurses, or life-care planners. Yet, they are somehow baffled by the notion that accessibility issues are present on the Internet.

In collecting data on Internet disability resources, one must be as intuitive as possible. In collecting our data, we considered some of the most common disability types, such as traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. First, within each category, we considered the kinds of resources on the Internet that existed for each category. We found sites dealing with the whole ball of wax—megasites where a wide range of information about the disability could be found—along with links to other sites. Then we listed general information sites that might not have lots of links to other places on the Net about the disability, but which provide plenty of in-depth information about a disability type. Of course, it was important to list advocacy organizations as well as research and treatment centers. In each category, we distinguished among sites throughout the world.

Apart from researching specific disabilities, we looked at the complete lifestyle of a person living with a disability and identified resources covering a wide range of important issues, such as assistive technology, employment resources, education, leisure, and recreation. Finally, we wanted to provide a way for individuals to quickly find information related to disabilities and came up with sites on government, research, and statistics resources as well as a list of more than 700 online publications, newsgroups, and mailing lists.

It is commonly accepted that there are three types of accessibility issues: hardware, software, and economics. To that I would add one more: search accessibility. There exists a level of frustration, and sometimes resentment, toward the Internet by those who feel that the information contained within it is overwhelming and often inaccessible in the form it is presented. In helping people steer around this particular accessibility issue, my presentations tend to have a greater focus on HTML field search techniques—such as url, domain:, image:, title:, link:, and host:—which I have found to be an effective way for compiling data on the Internet.

In addition, continued education on issues of accessibility uses for anyone dealing with the Internet—from the programmer to the end user, to the legislator, to the family member or caregiver of the person with a disability—is vitally important. Without recognition that there are problems, little will occur to ameliorate those problems.

On the merits of the Internet, shortly after publication of Internet Disabilities Resources, the publisher received a call from the father of a high school student suffering from tar syndrome. The family was having difficulty finding college scholarships for their daughter because of their income level. They had searched and researched many resources, but they were unable to find much. Somehow, they heard about the publication and were able to find within the education chapter the financial aid sources they sought.

In a small, direct, or indirect way, allowing those who need the resources to access them quickly, effectively, and effortlessly should be our goal.

Organizing the Resources
By Pauline Aguilar

The process of organizing disability resources on the Internet begins with gathering those resources and setting up ways for people to submit resources to a database. The next step is the organization of the resources themselves into two parts: virtual organization and physical origination. Both are integral to collecting and presenting resources. They affect both the storage of the resources in the database as well as the retrieval and presentation of the resources to the user. Since the presentation of the resources will be controlled by the user and the search engine may be masked, this part of the process is perhaps the most critical.

Virtual Organization

Great care must be taken so that the techniques used to organize the resources as well as the organizational structure itself are not subject to change. For example, as new resources are added and new types of categories appear, or as new presentation strategies emerge, consideration must be taken to shift the ways the resources are organized. Resources must be stored and categorized so they may be organized in multiple ways and included in multiple categories.

To accomplish this, the resources may be formatted and stored using XML or eXtensible Markup Language. A special DTD is under development to address the specifics of storage, retrieval, and presentation of the disability resources. This DTD will allow for presentation of the resources not only in a visual manner but through the use of other media as well. The use of this DTD allows for future expansion of the organization of the resources and for flexible expandable retrieval techniques.

Organization of the resources should be tied closely to both the existing categories of resources as they appear on the Internet and the needs of the user community that will retrieve the resources. The resources that we will be dealing with fall into two general categories:

Internet resource categories. These include such things as newsgroups, mailing lists, Web-based bulletin boards, Web pages and Web sites, chat groups, electronic news sources, and electronic and hard-copy newsletters. Those resources serve not only as focal points for users to gather information but also as signposts for the changes occurring in the disabilities community. These are the source categories for the content and provide the basic content of the site.

Content categories. The content categories provide the means by which the site is organized. The categories are supplied at the time of storage in the database by means of special tagging procedures provided in the XML DTD. This is designed such that it will be flexible and changeable. It is critical to the operation of the system. It must be able to change with the changes on the Internet and adapt to new types of content and presentation.

Physical Organization

There are several issues involved with physical organization of the system. Actual physical organization of the data is done by means of a database manager and the user of special keyword tags implemented in the XML DTD. The tags allow the data to be stored, searched, and retrieved.

Storage issues

Each document that is stored will be one of two types: either a pointer document that contains a link to the resource or a summary document that describes an offline resource that is available to the disabilities community but has no other Internet presence besides the entry in the database. The keywords that are placed in the documents will be placed at storage time and will help make search, retrieval, and presentation of the resources both accessible and easy. The system will allow modification and addition of the keywords as needs arise.

Search and Retrieval Issues

One of the most difficult issues on the Internet today concerns effective searching strategies and techniques. How do you search such that the results are truly relevant, and how do you ensure that you are not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the results returned? The keyword storage technique is designed to facilitate quick and accurate searching of the stored resources. In addition, a dynamic thesaurus can track all variations of keywords.

Another important consideration lies in helping the user create a search, or create a search that does not appear to be a search. Bear in mind that many of those who will use the system will have accessibility issues. The search itself must be accessible, or the system will lose its utility to the one of the most important segments of the audience we are trying to reach. This issue will be dealt with by means of both accessible-forms-based searching and searching by way of drill-down questioning. While the second method is not as flexible as the first, it does offer those who have trouble with forms an easier method of conduction of a search. Since all results will be dynamically produced from stored data, the resources that are presented to the user will be from the latest information available at all times.

Presentation Issues

Storage and retrieval of the data are closely linked to presentation of the information to the user. An organizational schema that is flexible enough to change and stable enough to allow the user to conduct an effective search will provide the basis for accessible presentation of the information. If users do not have relevant information related to what they are looking for, the presentation will make little or no difference. So this can be considered to be the solid base upon which accessible presentation of the information will rest.

Presenting the Resources
By Michael R. Burks

Universal design principles (UDPs) declare that the presentation of information should be accessible to as many people as possible. Since it is intended that information be presented in an international arena, those principals can be defined as including non-English speakers.

As part of the functionality of the database of disabilities resources on the Internet we are developing, users will be given the option of choosing the way they wish information to be presented. In effect the user will choose the view of the data, including format and visual or nonvisual forms of presentation. Eventually, users will choose from a set of delivery options, such as fax, hard copy, Web pages, or e-mail format tailored to specific devices such as screen readers or devices producing Braille output. The system will be further designed to interoperate with devices not yet developed. Within Web pages, the system will deliver specific formats selected by the user. For example, the Web format will allow users to decide if they want graphics or if they want the screen formatted for auditory output and how they want the output on the screen to appear. The initial version of the system will focus on producing Web-based output. This output will be usable by a wide range of Web browsers, but as the implementation proceeds, other delivery channels will be developed.

Many of the issues we are dealing with are general presentation issues, such as text size and placement, practical ways for users to get the presentation they desire, and how to present searches so as not to confuse and confound users. One of the challenges will be to present information dynamically but in a timely manner. The system must be able to produce output for existing channels, and it must be able to evolve with the appearance of entirely new information channels. The basic challenges are usability, flexibility, and scalability. This will be achieved by separating the content from the presentation. Information will be stored in the database. The use of XML and other technologies will allow it to be searched, retrieved, and presented according to user preferences.

Disability Issues

It is readily apparent that on a site dedicated to collecting, organizing, and presenting disabilities resources on the Internet, those resources must be accessible to all. As obvious as this may seem, a surprising number of sites dedicated to providing resources for people with disabilities are themselves not accessible to all. Part of the mission of this system is to present resources in such a manner.

Language Issues

Just as important as presenting the resources in an accessible manner is the issue of presenting the resources in the user’s language. Initially, the site will be implemented in English. However, we aim to offer other languages as quickly as possible.

Implementation Issues

Actual presentation of the information to the users will be driven by a three-tiered process. A user’s search command will result in resources’ being extracted from the database. That information will be converted into XML for those browsers that support XML and converted into HTML for those browsers that do not. For those who can use them, style sheets will be implemented to support the various types of presentation. There will also be a means to define the user’s preferences for browsers that do not support style sheets. They will then be sent to the user’s client software for final processing and presentation to the user.

As soon as possible, the resources will be translated into other languages. Initially, this will be a manual process. As translation technology improves, the process will become automated.

User Issues

There are a number of issues that are specific to the way information will be presented by the user’s client software.

As much as possible, users will define the way data is presented. This will allow them to choose the way they wish to have data presented and the means by which it will be presented, such as visual, auditory, or tactile. Some of these will have subcategories that will allow further definition by the user. They will also allow the system to implement new presentation methods as they appear.

There are several factors to be considered when processing information for presentation to the user.

The User’s Software

It must be considered that the user may be using something other than a standard Web browser. The system will be flexible enough to accommodate as many different types of access as possible, and it will be set up to add new ones as they appear.

The Format the User Requests

Different formats will require different types of processing. Even in the limited world of Web browsers there are myriad different formats that can be used to present information. All of those must be taken into account from the user preferences and the output must be built to adhere to what the user has requested. This will be done using a user’s preferences as the user has them, and the format and style will be built dynamically from what the user has stated as needs.

The Means by Which the User Wishes Data to Be "Displayed"

The term display is deceptive. In this case, it does not refer simply to visual presentation of information, but presentation of requested information by any available means. This can include visual, tactile, or auditory. It can also include a combination of those methods.

The Current Level of Technology

As technology evolves, this system will be designed to implement new and better methods of presentation as they appear. The system will be both upgradable and scalable to allow implementation of new technology in a manner that is as nonintrusive as possible. This will allow the system to accommodate new methods of presentation with little disruption to the current user base.

The Future

Developing technology offers great promise in the ways information can be presented. Such advancements are being leveraged into a system that will be able to present users with the resources they have requested and in the manner they have requested them. The technology will seek to reach as many people as possible in the ways they prefer or need. Users will be able to view information the way they prefer rather than the way designers require.


There is great need for a focused collection of Internet resources related to individuals with disabilities. While collections of disabilities resources do exist on the Internet, most are not set up to present output in a manner consistent with the user’s needs. There are few if any systems that are designed to adapt to rapidly changing presentation technology. The system discussed here seeks to address those issues. One of the purposes of the system used to present these resources is to give the user the control of the presentation. This will make information presented to the user accessible to the widest audience possible.

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