The Promise of the Web

How Accessible is This Website?

[Editor's Note: This review was done on the old design of the POV website. We will be doing a re-assessment later this summer on our redesigned site.]

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group recommends that web developers test their web sites for accessibility in different web browsers and environments. It is often cited as good practice for web developers to "test early, test often" to ensure that their sites keep pace with changes in browsers and operating systems that might affect how their web pages are presented.

Validation is a key step in ensuring an accessible web site. Automated validation tools assist web developers by verifying web pages against common accessibility guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) and the U.S. Government Section 508 guidelines.

We put the Freedom Machines homepage and site through two popular validation tools, Cynthia Says and Bobby, to see how well we were doing when it came to accessibility. How did we fare? Not too well. In fact, the "Freedom Machines" homepage failed both the WCAG 1.0 and Section 508 tests. Among the red flags that were raised was one that we were none too surprised about: our heavy reliance on graphics and visual structure to present our content.

By analyzing the traffic to our site, we are able to optimize our pages for viewing in what we identify as the most popular web browsers used by our audience, such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple Computer's Safari, while allowing for reasonably good viewing in older browsers, such as Netscape Navigator version 4 (we don't "optimize" for Netscape 4 per se). Unfortunately, by tailoring our sites to look consistent across these popular, graphics-based browsers, we run the risk of creating sites that can sometimes fail when presented in other environments like self-voicing browsers or text-only browsers.

How can we improve our sites and make them more accessible? There are a number of ways, and the validation tools helpfully provide a checklist according to the priorities outlined in WCAG 1.0 and Section 508. We already follow PBS Online's guidelines for accessibility, like providing descriptive HTML "ALT tags" for all site graphics (text descriptions of pictures and logos), avoiding frames, and avoiding the problematic "click here" language to indicate links. In addition, we have already begun to implement some of the items on the WCAG 1.0 checklist. We started by eliminating many of the extraneous graphics used on the "Freedom Machines" site, and providing even more detailed alternate text for those graphics that remain. Behind the scenes, we also added additional HTML code that will aid screen readers when parsing the pages for speaking aloud.

Still, there is much room for improvement. We could modify our site to function better when sound and graphics are not loaded at all. We could improve the text contrast and labeling of our content. We could also reduce our reliance on mouse- and keyboard-based input devices. And, as a general goal, we could look for more ways to separate our content from the visual structure and layout of the web page itself.

Developing a universally accessible web site is not without its challenges. There are changing guidelines, specifications, web browsers, and operating systems. There are also many audiences we are serving with our website. Accessibility is an issue not only for people with hearing and sight impairments, but also for those with cognitive impairments. The desire to accommodate people with non-English speaking backgrounds, older computers, and older web browsers is also an important factor. Fortunately, however, many of the additional improvements that we hope to implement in the future will also yield benefits down the road to our general audience, particularly those who surf the web with graphics turned off, print pages for reading later, or view our site in non-desktop-based browsers such as mobile devices and television set-top devices. So, regular visitors here take note: bookmark our site and look for changes to come.

-- The POV Interactive Staff (September 2004)