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Accessibility (Part I) – Identifying Disabilities

This is a three part series on Web Accessibility, Parts II and III may be accessed below:

Identifying DisabilitiesHaving a disability should not prevent one from exploring the immense amount of information available on the Web. The capabilities of surfing the Web and acquiring knowledge can be the result of accessibility to the information. Accessibility for persons with disabilities is not the event of “getting connected” to the Web, it pertains to being able to read and gather information while “on the Web”.

A large portion of today’s population, have mild disabilities or impairments that may not allow them to easily participate in Web activities. These disabilities come in a wide range, and are a contributing factor for the move toward an accessible Internet. If the information on the Web is not made accessible to those with disabilities, it’s truly a ‘lose…lose’ situation. Without accessibility, advertisers or sellers of products and services on the Web only reach a fraction of the intended audience, while the disabled person is shut out not only from a wealth of information, but products and services as well.

Before one can accomplish developing Web accessibility for others, an understanding of the different types of disabilities and accessories that are used for them must first be learned. Although, disabilities come in all forms, some are more noticeable to the eye than others. A recognizable disability is blindness, of which there a few variations. The table below shows common eye disorders:

Disorders:
Symptoms:
Legally Blind
Partial vision, 20 degrees or less usually 20/200.
Totally Blind
Inability to see anything.
Low Vision Blindness - Conditions that cannot be fully corrected by glasses are as follows:
Macular Degeneration
Gradual loss of vision, usually a black area in the center of sight.
Glaucoma
Loss or blurriness in peripheral vision.
Diabetic Retinopathy
Distorted or blurred vision with dark patches.
Cataract
Opaqueness of the eye lens causing blurred or hazy vision.
Color-Blindness
Difficulty distinguishing between certain colors.

Beside the need for the Internet itself to be accessible, there are devices available for assisting people with eye disorders to navigate while on the Web. The following table lists some of the available devices for Web interaction for people with eye disorders.

Screen Readers
Software programs that convert text to synthesized speech. Common screen readers are JAWS, Windows Eyes, and Home Page Reader.
Keyboards
Key caps with large and/or relief letters, or Braille symbols on keys.
Refreshable Braille Display
Convert text into Braille characters on refreshable Braille devices with small pins that are raised and lowered for reading by touch.
Screen Magnification Programs
Software such as ZoomText or MAGic zooms in on a small area and enlarges what is seen on the display screen.
Oversized Monitor
Larger viewing area.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR)
OCR or scanning of material that can then be output to Braille or speech synthesis.
Video Magnifier
Also known as a closed circuit TV (CCTV) system uses a stand-mounted camera or hand-held camera to project a magnified image from a printed page onto a computer screen, TV, or video screen.

When designing a Web site with accessibility in mind, the developer must have knowledge of how these devices interact with the Internet. For example, common screen readers read in a linear fashion from the top to the bottom of a page one word at a time. If tables are not designed with accessibility in mind, then they often are confusing to read. Images themselves cannot be read, which present limitations. Alternative text needs to be input describing the image so that screen readers can pickup and display this information to the reader. Other limitations can be skipping over irrelevant content such as advertising this task cannot always be accomplished.

Other accessibility issues for eye disorders are allowing the customization of contrast settings or using higher contrasts of colors to avoid using bad color combinations. Having the ability to override default background and font colors, not using colors to identify the importance or order of items, or having the ability to supplement text for color are all important factors for people that are color-blind. A street map is the perfect example of using colors to distinguish the different roadways.

Eye disorders maybe a noticeable disability that would yield help participating in Web activities, but they are not the only reason for having Web accessibilities. The table below describes a few other conditions that would require accessibility rules to be followed when developing for the Web.

Disorders:
Symptoms:
Hearing Conditions:
Deafness
Variation of hearing loss from different sounds or pitches to total loss of hearing.
Motor Disabilities:
Paraplegia
Spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis of the legs.
Quadriplegia
Spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis of the legs and arms.
Spina Bifida
Congenital spinal cord condition which may cause brain damage, motor difficulties and/or paralysis.
Diseases & Congenital Conditions:
Cerebral Palsy
Brain injury with decreased muscle control due to tightness, spasms, involuntary movement, could include impaired speech or paralysis.
Muscular Dystrophy (MD)
Genetic progressive degeneration of the muscles.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Difficulty communicating between central nervous system and muscles causing tremors, weakness, numbness, spasms, stiffness, impaired memory, or inability to walk.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (MLS)
"Lou Gehrig’s Disease" is a degenerative disease preventing neurons from sending impulses to the muscles, in time weakening and affecting movement and speech, even breathing.
Parkinson’s Disease
Central nervous system disorder causing uncontrollable shaking and rigidity in muscles, can even affect speech.
Essential Tremor (ET)
Nerve disorder comparable to Parkinson’s that results in uncontrollable tremors, usually affecting upper body which can include the larynx making speech more difficult.
Arthritis
Joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling.
Cognitive Disabilities: (These are learning disabilities affecting the ability to process information)
Dyslexia
Neurological learning disability, difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor spelling and decoding abilities which lead to comprehension problems.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Difficulties learning due to distractibility, inattentiveness, and impulsiveness.
Brain Injury
Caused by traumatic head injury, stroke, illness, or tumor.
Genetic Diseases – Mental Retardation, Down Syndrome, Autism, Dementia
Cognitive disabilities or significantly sub-average intellectual functioning along with deficits in adaptive behavior that affects educational performance.

As you can see not all of the above disorders can be easily noticed. Most people live day-to-day with disabilities that go undetected. Since the Web is considered a visual medium, most developers use a few guidelines aimed toward the blind. This could present a problem for those who need audible help. Using more than one device together can be a common practice for the disabled. A person who is deaf and blind can use a screen reader to convert the information to a Braille reader instead of hearing it audibly.

A deaf person could also use lip reading videos, closed captioned Web videos, even visual sign language, although there are several variations of Sign language around the world that could make this difficult. A good example would be a news video, if they are not made accessible, many could miss out on the latest news. The following table gives examples of the available devices that disabled people can use to help with accessibility.

Devices:
Actions:
Mouth Stick & Head Wand
Used to push keys or items on monitor for navigation.
Sip and Puff Switch
Used to actuate a 2 position switch for accessing electronic devices, mouse emulators, augmentative communication devices, devices controlled or access by scanning.
Oversized Track Ball
Used to navigate easier when use of hands are limited.
Adaptive Keyboard
Some have raised areas to rest hands before pressing keys, or can be used with software to finish words after a few keystrokes.
Enlarged or Miniature Keyboard
Used to control repeat rates and key entry.
Keyguard
Overlay for keyboards helps to make more accurate choices, and helps avoid unintentional keystrokes, can even include pictures.
Eye Tracking Device
Allows navigation of the Web strictly through eye movements, can be used in conjunction with software that allows typing and can include word-completion technology.
Single Switch Access
Large push button used by head or body to navigate or type.
Hearing Loop/Hearing Aid
NHS hearing aids have a T position which allows the pick-up of electromagnetic fields generated by a telephones earpiece or loop system and converts it to sound for the hearing impaired.

Those with motor disabilities such as paraplegia, quadriplegia, or a loss of a limb, can use devices such as special keyboards including a one-handed keyboard, mouse, mouse stick, etc. While those with congenital conditions find it difficult to use some of these devices due to loss of muscle control or tremors, and may use alternative such as a large track ball mouse or a foot control.

Depending on the severity of the disability, can greatly affect how Web information can be gathered. Web content can often times be difficult to comprehend, and may even be overwhelming. A good example is flashing banner ads, to someone with a brain disorder or ADHD, this type of advertisement is too distracting. An accessible site will allow distractible items to be turned off and use text only. On the other hand, incomprehensible text for one maybe best displayed with video or graphics.

Considering that most assistive technology is performed with the assistance of a keyboard or emulation of a keyboard, developers should consider making their content accessible to the keyboard, even allowing for navigation through as few strokes as possible. Learning the different disorders and taking into consideration how things affect certain people need to be the focus when developing Web content. There are many Web sites to learn more about accessibility, such as: http://www.w3.org, http://www.disabilityinfo.gov/, or http://www.ada.gov/.

For most of us, we use the Web through a browser that allows the information to reach us in such forms as audio, visual, text, graphics, or even video and rarely consider how we retrieve our information or if it is accessible. Although devices come in all brands, shapes, and sizes, and can assist people with disabilities to gain access to the Web, once on the Internet, if Web sites are not “accessible” then it is very difficult to gather information or participate at all. Adaptive devices only get you so far, unless the Internet becomes more accessible for those with disabilities, then these devices can become useless.

As you have just learned, accessibility is more than just a word it is an important tool for those with disabilities to find their way around the Internet, and incorporate it in their lives. Web accessibility has become an intricate part of gaining Web freedom for people with disabilities. Configurability is the key to accessibility. For more information on Web accessibility read Part II “The Importance of Web Standards” of this Accessibility series.