Internet Accessibility

Some technological change comes about because of the existence and interaction of systems. Rudi Volti cites the computer industry as illustrating the need for technology to develop “because of the availability of complementary technological developments that allow the resolution of fundamental problems” (Volti 36). The idea for an analytical engine dates back to the 1820s and Charles Babbage, but the system developed by Babbage was exceedingly complex and could not attain the speed and accuracy we can today. Babbage in his time lacked the necessary complementary technological developments to make his system work. That situation changed in the twentieth century as mathematicians and engineers developed the necessary systems that could store and retrieve information. The computer developed over the past fifty years as new developments indicated changes in structure and operation, and the computer has become one of the most pervasive and vital technologies in the world today, affecting many other technologies and products. Computers have been made smaller and more powerful. These advances have been made by a number of new and developing companies, primarily those in the Silicon Valley near San Francisco. These companies are in fierce competition for new designs, more powerful hardware, more versatile computer chips, and more inventive software. The underlying principles of computers are well understood, and every computer thus shares certain characteristics. The period from 1970 to the present is referred to as the fourth generation of computing, the period dominated by the microchip on which can replace over 15,000 circuit elements. In 1971, Intel Corporation introduced the first microprocessor chip, which contained all the major logic circuitry of a computer on one chip. The 1977 the personal computer was becoming established. Microcomputers began to attract real business in 1979. Creative developments in software design fueled the sale of hardware, and through the 1980s the microcomputer eclipsed the mainframe and mini-computer markets (Dologite 375-376).

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Following the development of the computer, means of connecting computers together were developed. The Internet started as a loosely-unified system used by academics, scientists, and the military. The growth of the Internet for the public at large can be traced to the development of the personal computer (PC), introduced in 1981. Today there are over 350 million PC’s worldwide, and it is rapidly becoming the primary communications tool for many (“The Business Benefits of the Internet” B10-11). The Internet was developed by the government as Arpanet as a means of communication within the scientific community, and it operates by providing links between computers in a loose fashion so that the computers of any university or scientific facility could communicate with any other. The Internet grew until it included a wide variety of servers linked to the larger network. The World Wide Web is a specific area of the Internet that has the capacity to transmit multimedia rather than merely text, meaning pictures, sound, and even video along with text. Growth of the Web itself has been rapid, and this has meant a tangle of web pages, hotlinks, and new sites. Explorers on the Internet often get lost. As of January 1, 1996 the World Wide Web had some 200,000 sites, or Web servers, offering close to 20,000,000 pages of information (Lorick 48-50).

The Internet allows PC users to connect to a variety of computer links around the world and to download information from those sites. E-mail is another of the services for which the Internet serves an important function, allowing instant communication between offices and individuals. Business executives value PC connectivity, which may be internal, linking PC’s in different parts of the office or in different offices of the same company, and external, such as linking the PC to the Internet and accessing databases and other services. Connectivity also allows small- to mid-sized companies to have the same market presence and worldwide name recognition on the Internet as a Fortune 1500 company:

What this might mean from a strategic and competitive positioning perspective is that small businesses are more likely to benefit from these enabling communication technologies; one reason is their ability to make operational decisions better and faster than larger, bureaucratic corporations (“The Business Benefits of the Internet” B10).

Companies with Internet access can create their own Web pages to provide information to clients, and the Internet can be a low-cost method to enhance and speed up communications between suppliers, prospects, and a company’s sales force. Small businesses may also find it advantageous to use Intranets rather than the Internet itself, with an Intranet being a means of connecting the PC’s and different offices of a single company. The technology is familiar to many because it mirrors the world wide web. It is a more user-friendly system than the Internet and makes it easier for older employees who resist technological change to learn and accept precisely because they do not have to learn that much about computing and can access information with a . Firms have come into being to help small businesses learn about the Internet and to train employees in its use. Small companies link to Internet Service Providers, which come in all shapes and sizes. Some develop Web Sites. some host Web Sites, and some do both.

Another use for the Internet is educational, and many sites were developed by academics before the PC was so widespread. Students use the Internet to access information in various databanks. Many colleges have their own Web sites serving as a central information bank for students and the school. Some systems link students to various academic departments (Cline 57-59).

The Internet provides a number of powerful functions. The first is communication, and e-mail allows the user to send messages to any other user. It is cheaper than regular mail and virtually instantaneous. File transfer is another form of communication enabled by the Internet and which can be effected in a number of ways — via e-mail, the World Wide Web, and File Transfer Protocol (FTP).Information can be accessed from databases around the world (Lorick 48-50).

There are certain disadvantages to the growing use of the Internet as well. The computer enables the employee to manipulate this data and crunch numbers at a much more rapid pace than was ever possible before, and through the intranet the data gathered, shaped, and manipulated by one department can be of immediate use to every other department without the need for repeating the same effort. Any such technology can be seductive so that a company may believe it is accomplishing more by storing and accessing this data than it actually is. There is a certain degree of skill necessary to make full use of both. In addition, one office may find the system easier to use than others, which would create a competitive disadvantage in that one office that will become more apparent over time.

The level of use increases all the time, but according to the most recent statistics, Internet use in the United States continues to climb, showing the following characteristics:

Over 83 million adults, or 40 per cent of the U.S. population over 16, access the Internet, up from 66 million in 1998.

Of these users, 3.7 million use a handheld computer and 3.1 million use a television set-top box or WebTV.

Internet users now spend more time online, averaging 12.1 hours per week compared to 10.9 hours per week in 1998.

The most popular online activities include sending and receiving e-mail, obtaining information about a hobby, general news, or information for business (“Internet Use [U.S.]”).

The issue is not simply how many people are using the Internet, but how many are not and why they are not.


Much of the promise of the information superhighway has not yet arrived for a number of reasons. For one thing, widespread as the PC is, there are segments of society that do not have access to the computer and so to the Internet, and the distance between the haves and have-nots is likely to increase as the Internet becomes more vitally important. The computer can allow the student and the businessman to access a wide variety of information, but how that information is used depends on the individual user and so may or may not prove of benefit. The cost of joining the newly-wired world may be high, but the cost of staying on the sidelines would be even greater. The new technologies can make life easier and expand our horizons if we use them properly and learn their capabilities.

However, before the benefits of the Internet and associated technologies can be realized, the individual must have access to the necessary computer technology and to a connection to the Internet. Many predictions have been made concerning the coming Information Superhighway. The proposed information superhighway involves a certain vision of how electronic communications will be developed and used in the future:

The vision is simple: and unprecedented nationwide?

and, eventually, worldwide?

electronic communications network that connects everyone to everyone else and provides just about any sort of electronic communication imaginable. You’d be able to hook up to the network through your computer, interactive TV, telephone, or some future device that somehow combines the attributes of all three. Even wireless gadgets such as pagers, future versions of cellular phones, and newfangled “personal digital assistants” would be able to tap into the highway. The purpose: to provide remote electronic banking, schooling, shopping, taxpaying, chatting, game playing, videoconferencing, movie ordering, medical diagnosing… The list goes on (Antonoff, Fisher, Langreth, and O’Malley 98).

Achieving this vision, however, means addressing the issue of accessibility so that everyone will have access to this superhighway.

In its broadest sense, web accessibility refers to more than the ability to connect to the Internet and includes the idea that websites should be, and often are not, designed so as to “facilitate access to the information on the site by people with disabilities” (Darsie 1) and others who need to access data and may find it difficult unless the site is designed to help rather than hinder in the search. From the point-of-view of the web designer, web accessibility is “the ability to produce Web sites that are easily accessible by as broad an audience as possible” (Focazio 1).

Need for Accessibility

There are a number of reasons why Internet accessibility is an important issue. The issue is first of all one of fairness and equity, given that those who are prevented from accessing Internet services and sites are at a disadvantage in many ways, meaning an educational disadvantage if they are students, a business disadvantage in the working world, and an information disadvantage in all walks of life when others can access information that they cannot. The issue is vital for business because they may be preventing some of their customers from accessing their sites and taking advantage of their offerings, and business people should recognize that “it is in our best interest to serve all segments of our audience” (Darsie 1). There are also legal requirements for Internet access for certain protected groups. Darsie cites a number of California regulations forcing the University of California and similar institutions to provide Internet access for all under Sections 504 [1973] and 508 [1986] of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended; 42 USC 12101; California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Title 22; California Government Code, Sections 11135, et seq.; and other federal and state laws (Darsie 1).

Among the reasons given for improving web accessability are the following:

To comply with regulatory and legal requirements

To gain exposure to more people, including people with disabilities and seniors

To gain exposure to more situations, such as new places and new devices

For better design and implementation

To achieve cost savings

To enhance the reputation

As a matter of enlightened self-interest

The problem is worse for those with disabilities and can be doubly worse for disabled people who are also in poverty, for as LaPlante, Carlson, Kaye and Bradsher note,

Across the board, the poverty rate increases substantially when a householder has a disability and even more so when both householders (in partnered families) have disabilities (p. 3).

The issue is not merely a U.S. issue, and in the developing global economy, accessibility on the international scene is even more vital. The legal situation has been stated clearly in the U.S., but many of the rules set up on the international scene are less clear or are outdated, as Sara-Serrano notes when she states,

More broadly, many of the international norms and standards relating to disability were adopted before the technological marvel that is the Internet was fully available. Most web sites are still not accessible and most persons with disabilities do not have access to those that are (Sara-Serrano).

She also notes that the Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities under Paragraph 10 of Rule 5 on Accessibility states,

States should ensure that new computerized information and service systems offered to the general public are either made initially accessible or are adapted to be made accessible to persons with disabilities (Sara-Serrano).

In the U.S., the legal framework is found in several laws, beginning with Section 508 requiring that the electronic and information technology of Federal agencies is accessible to people with disabilities. This law is overseen by the Center for Information Technology Accommodation (CITA), which is in the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy. This agency is charged with educating Federal employees and with building the needed infrastructure to support implementation of this law (ASection 508″).

Part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is Section 255, which requires manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment to make certain that the equipment is designed, developed, and produced so as to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. The Act requires that manufacturers make certain their equipment is compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialize customer premises equipment commonly used by those with disabilities to achieve access (“Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines”).

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been offered to help make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. These guidelines are intended to help Web content developers and can be used to make Web content more available to all users. These guidelines are published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. The guidelines suggest ways of organizing material and of developing websites that can be accessed and read with a minimum of fuss (AWeb Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0″).

Another applicable legal regime can be found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibit discrimination against people with mental or physical impairments. The employment rules apply to companies with 25 or more employees at the present time, and within two years to companies with 15 to 24 employees. Companies with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from the job-bias rules (McGee). The Americans with Disabilities Act implemented in 1992 provides that companies must make their facilities accessible to the estimated 43 million people in the U.S. with disabilities. The Act also offers provisions designed to prevent discrimination in hiring, promotion, or any other aspect of employment for companies with 25 or more employees. The effect has been to frighten many employers who do not understand elements of the Act or who fear it will make them spend money or otherwise be less competitive. There are things the employer now cannot ask a prospective employee about whether he or she has ever had a physical or mental disability. The employers will have to put in ramps or curb cuts to provide access to their buildings and remodel restroom facilities. They can no longer assume that someone with a physical handicap cannot perform a job simply because it appears that he or she cannot, and they will have to provide devices for some handicapped people who need them, such as telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDDs) that enable the hearing impaired, through a teletypewriter, to communicate with others (Verespej 14-15).

Similarly, the Disabilities Discrimination Act of 1995 addresses the special needs of workers and others for Internet access, on the following basis:

Disability can lead to several problems when accessing the Internet. Aside from visual impairments, hearing, dyslexia and motor problems can also cause a person to encounter difficulties when using a computer. These problems can usually be overcome via the use of assistive technologies. For instance, a visually impaired person can use a text-based browser such as Lynx and a screen reader to ‘speak’ the text that appears on the screen or a Braille display to feel the words. On the other hand, captioning of video and audio clips can allow a user to read what is being said, in much the same way as subtitles on television. It is also possible for someone who suffers from motor problems to use the keyboard or special input device to navigate his way around the screen without having to use a mouse (Sloan).

Web accessibility is an issue that applies to everyone, and achieving accessibility is a benefit for everyone. It benefits users who are able to access the Internet, and if the user is disabled, it clearly benefits that user directly. However, it also benefits those who offer web content, allowing more people to access their information and to make use of it. For companies engaging in e-commerce, increased accessibility provides a larger consumer base. In the broadest sense, Web accessibility is a matter of public service, for the Internet is the new public forum in which social and political issues are debated and expressed.

Need for Accessible Websites

Computer technology is bringing new hope to the disabled. Safko International Inc. is a company which develops technology for the disabled, and president Lon Safko says that we are all only “temporarily able-bodied” and so will need some sort of assistance at some time in our lives. The company undertook ten years of research and development and sought input from more than 1,000 disabled individuals and rehabilitation centers to develop a system that allows the disabled a level of independence. SenSei is a complete computer system providing hands-free access to computer technology, and this allows individuals able to move only their head to make phone calls, control their environment, lock and unlock doors, type, read books, and use other commercial software that allows them to return to work. This system can be used by businesses and educational facilities to bring the disabled back to work or school, which also helps these organizations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The system costs $7,900, and the software can be purchased separately for those with a Macintosh computer (“Disabled Abled”).

Computer technology makes it possible for the disabled to continue working in a number of ways, and telecommuting, or working by computer from home, is one of those ways. Glenn is a 37?year-old mentally disabled man who uses a wheelchair, but today he has a job as a data-entry clerk at his local Sounds Easy Video store because of a Windows-based PC and a computer bulletin board. He is one of 35 mentally and physically disabled people who regularly participate in an innovative computer “habilitation” program run by Mobius, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Maine, and this program is seen as a model for methods that can be deployed by information systems managers to support and lower the barriers to entry for disabled workers in corporations and other businesses, as the executive director of Mobius notes when he says that computer hardware, software and online services are great equalizers in terms of providing competitive employment opportunities for the disabled (DiDio 37).

Businesses in the past commonly hired people with disabilities for “sheltered” jobs where disabled workers were grouped together and had little interaction with the rest of the workforce. Technology is changing that as it has been shown that moderate mental handicaps and wheelchairs are not obstacles to Internet access or the use of e-mail. More than this, technology has benefited disabled workers in other ways. For many individuals, the simple act of using a computer keyboard aids developmentally retarded individuals who are mentally regarded and who may also suffer from physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy and use wheelchairs to hone their motor skills (DiDio 37).

Joseph Lazzaro, however, finds that the blind have not been addressed as they should be by the computer industry. Lazzaro is himself blind, and he says he has not been well served since computers changed from an emphasis on from text to an emphasis on graphics. For the blind to operate a PC, software must verbalize each character typed and identify each object the cursor lands on. In the period when DOS was the primary interface, this system worked well, for the blind could load virtually any piece of DOS software onto the PC and leave the user confident that the screen reader would reliably vocalize everything on the screen-?not only the written text but also the menu items, dialogue boxes, and warning messages. This is no longer the case. DOS is a text-based operating system, and screen readers and other adaptive devices can easily read its “text buffer” and thus convert to speech any object on the screen. Today, virtually all PC software is written for graphical user interfaces such as Windows, OS/2, and the Macintosh, systems which paint the screen pixel by pixel rather than character and display layers of windows, menus, icons, and dialogue boxes. This makes developing a system that verbalizes all that is on screen much more difficult (Lazzaro 66).

The blind also originally found test-based Internet sites offered a world of information they previously could not access, but the development of the World Wide Web, with its graphics mixed with text, is not as useful, Companies putting together applications on graphics-intensive intranets and Web sites have been shutting the door on employees and customers who are sight-impaired. Many blind people use text-to-speech “screen readers” that work only with the character-based DOS operating system and not with graphical user interfaces such as Web browsers. Today, there are some access products coming on the market, but progress in this area has been slow. According to the American Foundation for the Blind in Chicago, there are about 900,000 blind or visually impaired people who use computers and who could also use a more friendly sound interface to serve this population (Blodgett 1).

On the other hand, this problem has been addressed for some systems. Computer programmer Sam Rocco provides systems support for the City of North York, Ontario’s transportation department and writes code and applications. He also helped install a local-area network for more than 25 users. He is also blind, and he is able to do his job because of a device from IBM Canada Ltd. called Screen Reader/2, which converts the information on his screen into speech (Kerr 1). The blind have access to a device that reads aloud, the Kurzwell Reading Machine, which can read most English-language magazines, hardcover books, and material written on standard typewriters (“Things That Help the Handicapped”).

Computers have been used to give new life to disabled children, bringing them together online in ways not possible in the real world. An organization dedicated to helping children with chronic illnesses and disabilities connect with each other depends on the it industry to keep donating products and expertise for this purpose. is a computer network service that links about 5,500 children and adolescents with a disability or chronic illness through a variety of conferences and e-mail channels. This helps these young people with the socialization process, given that many of them are quite shy (Sibley 35).

The computer industry is trying to address the special needs of disabled persons, opening new opportunities for them to work and communicate. Progress may be slow in some areas, but the potential rewards are great.

Not all disabilities are readily apparent, and cognitive disabilities can also have an effect on accessibility. Some, such as Dyslexia, affects the ability to read and comprehend language, something that clearly affects the ability of the sufferer to access information on the Internet. Dyslexia also affects many people:

Reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, are the most common type of learning disability. In fact, an estimated 15-20% of the population has some sort of language-based learning disability. Among these, dyslexia is the most common. Evidence suggests that dyslexia is an inherited condition found among both males and females of all ethnic backgrounds (“Types of Cognitive Disabilities”).

Other individuals may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), brain injury, and certain genetic diseases that cause cognitive disabilities, including Down’s syndrome, autism, and dementia.

Observers note what aspects of website design and implementation should be considered in coping with issues of accessibility and divide these into site navigation, document organization and structure, supplemental illustrations (including icons, video, and audio), clear and simple writing, the fonts used, and so on. Website developers must consider that some of the audience needs to have the presentation made a little easier and so more accessible. In terms of site navigation, for instance, the developer should keep the process simple, clear, and consistent, and even those without cognitive disabilities can find it difficult to navigate on sites with poor schemes. Location on the page is not as important as how the main navigation site works, and the navigation site should not blend too much into the rest of the page or it will be harder to find and understand. A site with a good means of searching enables the user to by-pass the main site navigation section entirely and yet still find the desired information. Offering a site map or a site index also provides another means of seeking out and finding desired information.

The structural organization of documents can also be important for helping users navigate a site. It is advised that the more structure the document can be, the easier it is to understand, and structure is achieved by adding headings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, definition lists, and indented quotes. There are built-in methods in HTML for shaping a document and providing needed guides to the reader. Highlighting and the use of color can also set text apart and make the structure of the entire page more accessible. If visual elements are used to convey important meaning, non-visual means should also be used to convey the same information. This can aid those who cannot see the visual aspect. If a color is used, those who are color-blind may not see it, just as blind users will not see it. If the same data is highlighted in a different way, as in a section on “Key Concepts,” then other users will still be able to read and learn from it.

Supplemental media is often used to enhance accessibility for a website and can add greatly to the understanding of those with cognitive disabilities, though care must be taken in using this approach:

The problem is that high quality media is often difficult to produce. Poor quality media may actually decrease the accessibility of Web content, by making it more confusing (“Types of Cognitive Disabilities”).


The above are only some of the ways to improve Web accessibilty by means of Web design. Accessibilty is improved first by assuring that everyone possible has access to the necessary computer equipment and to affordable connections to the Internet. The ability to use the hardware is a problem for some because of disabilities which seem to mitigate against computer use but which can be adjusted for in computer design and the creation of peripheral products serving those with special needs. Accessibility then becomes a matter of being able to make sense of the content of the Internet, which for some is more difficult because of cognitive disability. Solutions can be found at each of these junctures if proper attention is paid to the need and to options that exist.

An analysis should always be made of any web design in terms of how that design will serve the many populations that may access it, how it can be improved to serve more people, and what elements might be changed to accommodate the needs of specific disabled groups. The intent should always by to enable access for as many people as possible, minimizing obstacles to access and understanding, and recognizing the needs of the many different types of people who use the Internet. This is a key moral, ethical, and business issue based both on equity and on the more self-serving need of the given site to attract and serve as many people as possible.

Works Cited

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DiDio, L. (1997, July 28). Program links disabled to jobs. Computerworld, 37.

Darsie, Richard. “Building Accessible Web Sites a DRAFT Recommended Solution Document.” Office of the Vice Provost Information and Educational Technology Expiration.

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McKee, B. “Disability Rules Target Job Bias.” Nation’s Business (1 June 1992).

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Things that help the handicapped help themselves.” Changing Times.

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