Rubrik: Campus Life
A new law calls for barrier-free websites, at universities too.
Published: 15.07.2004 06:00
Modified: 14.07.2004 18:08
At the beginning of the year a new federal law came into force that calls for barrier-free access to websites. But websites at Swiss universities still exhibit a large number of obstacles. A workshop wants to help find solutions.
By Jakob Lindenmeyer
"Image, Image, Image“, drones the voice of the robot from the speech browser Jaws. Over-designed websites often do not represent the "click and enjoy" experience for the blind surfer, who, faced with navigational graphics as an alternative to the missing text, is already navigating in the dark as far as content is concerned.Barriers too for search engines
"In the World Wide Web of all places – created to overcome borders – new barriers are being erected every day," laments Christian Schmutz from the accessibility website "einfach-fuer-alle.de". Barriers, such as artistic flash animations or simply unlabelled navigational graphics, are not only a hindrance to the older generation or people with disabilities, but also cause confusion to search engines and the users of mobile appliances.
Shutting these users out of the Internet is a problem because communication in today's information society increasingly takes place via the medium of the Internet. An increasing number of informations and services are available via Internet, exclusively. Many banks and post-offices now charge for services conducted at the counter, if indeed such services, are still on offer at all. In future more and more public services, visits to government offices, courses, further education and electronic voting on issues and elections will also be executed via the Internet.ETH websites have to be barrier-free
This was one of the reasons why, at the beginning of the year, a law came into force in Switzerland aimed at giving people with disabilities equal opportunities (1) . The corresponding decree prescribes that all government's Internet services are made accessible to people with oral, auditory or visual impairment. As ETH is a federal institution its websites also have to comply with these regulations, according to a spokesperson from the ETH legal office.
A cursory inspection of websites belonging to ETH or the University of Zurich six months after the law came into force shows that a lot still remains to be done. This is the reason for the web offices of the two institutions to devote their annual WWW workshop entirely to the theme of accessibility. The first part of a one-afternoon workshop (see box) will sharpen the awareness of web designers and editors with regard to accessible web design. In a second part they will also receive practical tips and tricks on how to find and eliminate barriers on websites and how the sites can be adapted to comply with the new law.Accessibility officer to monitor Internet obstacles
Ralph Mrowietz from the ETH Web Office has made this experience a couple of months ago. "The design process is a lot simpler if one takes the aspect of accessibility into account right at the beginning of the project," he says, summarising experience he gained from his involvement with the "IDEA League" project. In this project he developed a website for the strategic alliance of four leading European universities (2) . The finished design for this league of universities had to be adapted subsequently to meet British law requirements, which places Britain's universities under a strict obligation to ensure accessibility to people with disabilities.
A British accessibility specialist was flown in to help with his know-how on adaptation, which he passed on to the ETH team. Mrowietz learned that the barrier-free culture in Anglo-Saxon countries is a step ahead of countries on the European continent. "Our partner university, the Imperial College in London, even has its own accessibility officer, who scrutinises all of the university's activities to ensure that barriers do not exist," comments an impressed Mrowietz.
The reason, amongst others, for the head start these countries have in this area is the firm establishment of barrier-freedom in the national laws of Great Britain and the USA. In the latter, for instance, an appendix to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act regulating the "Accessibility for People with Disabilities in the Information Age" appeared in 1998 (3) . Another motor on an international level is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the web standardisation organisation, initiated already in 1997 (4) .Two years later the organisation published the globally binding accessibility standard in the WCAG Regulations.Increase of non-Latin Internet users
With today's growing markets in Asia more and more people are connecting to the Internet who do not use the Latin alphabet. This highlights a further aspect of barrier-free access: its internationalisation. Accessibility and the use of Arabic, Cyrillic, Hindu, Chinese and Japanese characters is becoming an increasingly important issue and was on the agenda, for example, of this year's WWW Conference in New York in May (5) .
Switzerland's laws governing accessibility and their implementation lag behind those of the US by a number of years, explained one participant at the conference. But the international standards and tools are often only available in English. "This is regrettable, because the English language as such is a barrier for a large part of the world's population," says Shawn Henry from the Education and Outreach Working Group, during a break. "I would welcome it if we could get more people to translate our communication material on standards and tools." However, owing to meagre funding her group could practically only count on work being done on a voluntary basis, which often held up implementation.Growing market for barrier removers
For this reason, as far as is possible, the group also supports locally organised initiatives, organisations and projects, who are pushing ahead the implementation of the equal opportunity law for people with disabilities. Local activities in Switzerland include, for example, the foundation "Access for All" ("Zugang für alle") or projects such as "Design for all" as well as questions surrounding the Internet in the recently concluded study from the Swiss National Science Foundation on "People with disabilities at Swiss universities" (6) . In addition more and more web design and usability companies were joining the fray to remove barriers on existing websites, notes Mrowietz from the ETH Web Office.Easy access benefits all
But, for Mrowietz, the term barrier-free does not only pertain to access for people with disabilities, it is also an issue that effects search engines, or users of mobile devices, such as mobile phones with web browsers. Mrowietz sums up: "A barrier-free website is easier for every surfer to use!"