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Accessibility Issues On U.S. Senate Web Site Impact Constituents Who Are Blind

May 9, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker
Mika Pyyhkala wrote the following letter to the Senate webmaster not only reiterating the accessibility issue already reported but also identifying some additional concerns with links missing appropriate descriptive alt text tags.  He also provides some resources for webmasters to begin to learn about and address accessibility issues.
Dear U.S. Senate Webmaster,

I am a blind resident of Massachusetts  writing to bring to your attention at least two  accessibility concerns on the senate.gov web site. Firstly, Essentially, it is not currently possible for a blind person relying on a screen reader to find their Senators. After selecting the state and pressing the Go button, the contact information for the appropriate two Senators is not provided as expected.  Your web site may be rendering the expected information in a picture, or with some sort of nonstandard mark up conventions.  This form can be found at the url:
http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/general/one_item_and_teasers/contacting.htm

In a brief review of the Senate web site, I also encountered a number of unlabeled links to key areas.  A screen reader speaks these links as “teaser/teaser_btmgo”. You can find these unlabeled links at the url:
http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm?State=MA
You can use a text browser rendering tool to get an idea of how such a page appears in a screen reader.  Here is an example for the above mentioned page:
http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.cgi?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.senate.gov%2Fgeneral%2Fcontact_information%2Fsenators_cfm.cfm%3FState%3DMA
This tool gives  you an idea about how the page controls  might be read by a screen reader to a person who is blind.

I would like to request that you engage people with disabilities in your business requirement design, , development, beta testing, quality assurance, and other internal processes used to maintain the web site and other in use technologies.  For example, if people who are blind who use assistive technology were part of your testing process, it is very unlikely that these two particular issues would have materialized on the in production web pages.  From a web development perspective, it is easier and less resource intensive if you build accessibility in to processes from the ground up, instead of so-called “bolted on” accessibility after a web site or other technology solution has gone in to production.

As a taxpaying citizen who has paid in part for the creation of this web site, I am asking that you work to correct these issues so that blind and visually impaired citizens may fully utilize the capabilities and resources offered by the web site.  Again, also, accessibility testing and validation exercises should be conducted before new content or features are placed in production to assure that such implementations and changes are accessible.  Accessibility and usability by people who are blind should not be simply a one-off process, or something only evaluated when usability feedback like this is received.  Instead, as I have noted, accessibility should become a key part of your business process and corporate DNA.  Under Section 508, the U.S. government has pledged to be a model citizen in this regard, and making accessibility an ongoing front burner initiative is part of this commitment.  Furthermore, these actions will aid the private sector in modeling similar standards and behaviors.

I would be pleased to help you in these endeavors.  I will also provide some web addresses where you can obtain more information about accessibility and assistive technology used by people with disabilities:

Making Your Web Site Accessible to the Blind
http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Web_accessibility.asp?SnID=2798332
by Curtis Chong
Director of Technology
National Federation of the Blind

Watchfire WebXACT, a tool that can be used to create an initial and preliminary check on a web sites accessibility and Section 508 compliance:
http://webxact.watchfire.com/
These automated testing tools are useful, but are not a substitute for involving people with disabilities in your business and technical processes as outlined above.

 
 Nonvisual Accessibility Web Application Certification
http://www.nfb.org/nfb/certification_intro.asp?SnID=887575
This is a program of the National Federation of the Blind which enables organizations to seek consulting services and certification once a web site is made accessible.  The program combines automated testing as well as real world end user acceptance testing using assistive technologies.

Jaws For Windows Screen Reader (including free demo version):
http://www.freedomscientific.com/fs_products/JAWS_HQ.asp
This is the software used by people who are blind which reads computer information  in synthetic speech or provides it using  refreshable braile displays.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) – home page
http://www.w3.org/WAI/
This is a standards organization that provides guidelines on web development including accessibility considerations.

Section 508: The Road to Accessibility
http://www.section508.gov/
The federal government has pledged by law to be a leader in this area, and holds itself accountable to ensuring that web sites and other technologies are accessible to people who are blind as well as those with other disabilities.  The above links to a federal government Section 508 portal.

Thank you in advance for your effrorts in these areas.  I trust that the information and links are helpful to you, and again I look forward to working with you in the near future.

Best regards,

Mika Pyyhkala

cc: Jennifer Fay, Help Committee, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts
    Help Committee General Office, U.S. Senate

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2 opinions on “Accessibility Issues On U.S. Senate Web Site Impact Constituents Who Are Blind

  1. This is a very well-written letter that provides a lot of good constructive advice, but the statement, “Essentially,
    it is not currently possible for a blind person relying on a screen reader to find their Senators” is simply not accurate as I pointed out in a comment to the first posting about this issue. I am totally blind and use JAWS and I was able to find my senators just fine by clicking on the “Senators” link. I discovered this on my own before the response was posted to this blog, and it maybe took me 30 seconds to figure it out. To me, being blind is all about being resourceful and adaptive, not crying foul when something doesn’t work immediately. Remember that, whether we like it or not, sighted people judge the whole blind community by whatever their own personal experience with blind people happens to be. so, when the web masters at senate.gov start getting letters from blind people saying that it is impossible for us to find our senators, even though it is very possible, and quite easy at that, I can’t help but think that in the back of these people’s minds is the perception that we are either incapable of being resourceful, or apt to complain too quickly. The fight for equal access is difficult enough without us shooting ourselves in the foot by claiming that certain things are inaccessible when in fact they are accessible with just the smallest amount of extra effort. Let me be clear, I agree that the lack of alt tags on this site absolutely needs to be addressed, and I love the way that this letter is written. I am only taking issue with the claim that a blind person cannot find his/her senators on this site. this is simply untrue, and counter-productive to our cause to keep making this inaccurate claim.

  2. Bob,

    I think the statement regarding the inability for a blind person to find one’s Senators was taken from my original post. At that time, I was unaware of the alternative technique for getting the job done. The issue was reported by someone else. I did spend a few minutes at the site before blogging about the issue, but apparently not enough to derive this alternative on my own. Alas, I do not have a staff of researchers and testers. I can only draw from you and others in the blind community. So, it is agreed that the statement is not entirely accurate, but it was also not done deliberately. We also have no way of knowing exactly when Mika wrote and sent this letter. I suspect he did so before the response I received from Liz Horell on behalf of the Senate webmaster. I hope this helps to clear things up.

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