June 18, 1998 2:25 PM PDT

W3C aims to make browsers accessible

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The World Wide Web Consortium today took a step toward making browsers more useful to people with disabilities.

The W3C today released a draft of guidelines for building browsers that provide more complete navigational and presentational information, particularly for visually impaired users. These tools facilitate Web browsing not only for those with disabilities, but also for people using new varieties of Web access devices with small screens.

The W3C's work on accessibility is crucial to keeping people with disabilities functioning in the information age, according to working group chair Jon Gunderson.

"Information technology is rapidly becoming a literacy skill," Gunderson said. "People who can't use that technology are going to be locked out of opportunities, just like someone who can't use pen and paper. These guidelines are a way for developers of these types of technology to make these accessibility techniques a reality."

The guidelines released today fall under five categories: presentation adjustability; orientation; navigation and control; visibility of accessibility features; and compatibility.

The presentation guidelines concern browser users' ability to control fonts, colors, and styles set by page authors. This is necessary, for example, if a colorblind user needs to override a Web site's color scheme that renders it difficult for him or her to read.

Presentation guidelines also recommend that users be able to specify how information is presented. In one example, the user can choose to have an image, a textual description of it, or both displayed. The same choice could be made with audio or video files, for tables, or for animation.

A second set of guidelines, under the category of orientation, helps visually impaired users find out where they are on a page or table and how much of the document they have seen.

A third set of guidelines falls under the header of navigation and control. These have to do with letting users navigate a page either with a mousing device, a keyboard, or through voice prompts. In one example, the guidelines recommend that hyperlinks in a page be numbered so that visually impaired users can refer to them more easily.

The fourth group of guidelines recommends that browsers make their accessibility features quickly known and easily accessible by users.

The fifth group recommends that browser makers base their accessibility techniques on standard Web technologies, particularly the W3C's own recommendations for hypertext markup language and cascading style sheets.

Draft editor Ian Jacobs noted that the guidelines are not very specific in terms of how browsers should implement their suggestions.

"We avoid saying how to implement things," Jacobs said. "We say that the user should be able to do this or that, but we don't dictate how to do it. Whether it's through sound, through a bright light on the screen, or through Braille, we're saying that the information must be made available."

Browsers are only one part of the accessibility equation. In addition to the browser guidelines issued today, the consortium has already issued a draft of accessibility guidelines for page authors. The consortium also is at work on a set of accessibility guidelines for those developing Web authoring tools.

The draft released today will be open to public feedback for consideration by the working group, whose members include browser makers Netscape Communications, Microsoft, and Opera Software, as well as other technology firms and advocacy groups for people with disabilities. The W3C subsequently will issue a proposed recommendation, and finally a recommendation. That recommendation is not a legally binding standard, but it nevertheless carries a lot of weight with Web developers and software firms alike.

 

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