A growing movement to make the Internet more accessible to people with disabilities has developers trying to figure out ways to accomplish that without watering down the visual and audio aspects of Web sites or spending large amounts of time and money to overhaul them.
The Accessible Arts program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, is facing the same challenge. It's developing a Web site that will let visitors take a virtual tour of the Dayton Art Institute. Adam Alonzo, Accessible Arts program coordinator, is using image-enlargement software by AXS Technologies Inc., called the EyeSpy image server, to give viewers an up-close view of a mask, a painting, or a sculpture from their desktops. After looking at a host of commercial products, including the Live Picture image server by MGI Software Corp., Alonzo chose AXS's product because it doesn't require a mouse to manipulate images on a Web site, "which is a problem for people with mobility impairments," he says. The EyeSpy image server lets users zoom in or reposition a Web image by pressing keys on a keyboard or a keyboard-equivalent device.
Besides meeting Wright State University's requirements, AXS Technologies' image server is also in compliance with Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act, which requires federal agencies' Web sites to be accessible by the disabled. The federal law goes into effect June 21. AXS is not a federal agency, nor did it originally design its software to comply with Section 508, but once it became aware of the act, AXS modified its software to meet all 16 requirements of the law, says Mark Cross, AXS's VP of product development.
Awareness of Section 508, coupled with occasional complaints from employees or customers with disabilities, is motivating companies to address Web-site accessibility issues, says Michael Paciello, founder and chief technology officer of WebAble, a consulting practice. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about making their Web sites accessible to the disabled is that they'll have to overhaul the sites, Paciello says. He advises clients to develop Web pages on back-end servers by using templates and storing data and images with text captions in a database for easier management. He also says site-usability studies are helpful in determining how people use the site, so they can "make the Web experience more acclimated to the preference of the user."