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CNNdotCOM Tools: Web access for the disabled

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(CNN) -- If you have a disability, entering a building or using an ATM may have gotten a little easier since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. But how much of an obstacle is accessing the Web?

Since 1996, the ADA has required Web site accessibility for the disabled. We met with Karen Silver of PC World to explore tools designed to help the disabled and to help Web sites accommodate them.

Web options can be limited for those who have trouble handling a mouse, seeing a Web site or hearing video. For people with mobility problems, a simpler Web site design can ease navigation. And tools like Media Access Generator add captions to streaming video for the hearing impaired.

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The visually impaired can use a screen reader, which reads a Web site out loud. This utility helps navigate a site by telling you what the links, buttons and pictures are. You can adjust the speed of the voice and choose the site from which the screen reader will read the text. IBM's version, called Home Page Reader, offers a free trial for 30 days.

But this kind of tool only works if the site has been designed with a screen reader in mind. For example, if an icon or picture doesn't include a text alternative, the software reads out what sounds like gibberish. This is the case for the majority of sites on the Web, Silver said.

Silver believes many companies haven't adapted to screen readers because they're worried about the cost, that the site will look ugly, and that there isn't enough of a market to warrant it. But adding text alternatives doesn't change a site visually, and some estimate that about 20 percent of Web users are disabled in some way.

When creating a Web site, you can keep disabled users in mind by using guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C site posts tip cards that you can stick on your computer as you're working.

To target accessibility, Web sites can use a program called Bobby, which is run by the Center for Applied Special Technology. You submit a Web site address to Bobby and it marks up the site wherever there is a problem. At the bottom of the site, you can view a list of everything you could possibly change, prioritized by the easiest and most important things to change.

According to Bobby, almost any site will have something on it that can be fixed. But providing a printer-friendly version of your site can solve many problems.

To Silver, it is a matter of equal access.

"We've gotten used to seeing ramps on our buildings and closed captions on our TV. Theres no reason why the Web shouldn't be just as successful," she said.



RELATED STORIES:
Locking Out the Disabled

RELATED SITES:
CNNdotCOM
PC World
Bobby
IBM Home Page Reader
National Center for Accessible Media's Media Access Generator
World Wide Web Consortium's Quick Tips


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