Friday, January 17, 2003

Federal Regulations and Laws of Significance to Vision Impaired people using the web.

People with vision problems make up by far the largest group of Americans with disabilities. The number of people in the US who are visually challenged is between 11 and 20 million. Of this group there are approximately 1.3 million who are considered legally blind (20/200 after correction is the beginning of legal blindness or, a visual field of vision of less than 20 degrees after correction also constitutes legal blindness.)

Of the legally blind group about 1 million have enough sight to be able to use a computer if the type was large enough and the color setting appropriate. The remaining 300,000 would need a screen reader such as JAWS or Windows Eyes to access the Internet.

The remaining 10 to 13 million (20/70 after correction is the beginning of vision impaired), who are considered to have vision impaired, could easily use the Internet if the type is large enough for them to see.

Beyond this demographic is a much larger group who find using the Internet difficult and tiring because the type on almost all web pages is just too small to read comfortably (and therefore they are not able to enjoy the many benefits of the Internet.

This group is made of a vast majority of older users who don’t consider themselves as 'vision impaired' -- often reporting that they just "don’t see as well as they use to". Allowing this group to control the size of the type on each page viewed would make their web experience possible and much more pleasant. This group would be much more likely to utilize a web site that is easy to read.

Federal attempts to make access to the vision challenged community.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the one of the first bills that extended protection to individuals with disabilities access programs and information if there were Government funds involved and was especially aimed at guarantee disabled children equal access. Although vision impaired was not mention directly, law does effect vision impaired users in many situations.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, was a huge step forward for making equal access for all Americans with all types of disabilities the law. The greatest gains in access have been in the area of physical access to buildings and being able to have equal access to public places such as roads and sidewalks.

Title I of the ADA has very specific wording dealing with equal access for employment which when applied correctly and enforced will give visually challenged Americans much better access to employment opportunities.

Title 1 prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment. Also under Title I an employer may not ask about an applicants disability before offering a applicant a position.

Currently, every company of any size, most state and federal agencies and most large institutions handle all their job recruitment through the Internet and almost none except some federal agencies make any accommodation for people individuals with vision impairment. When Title I is enforced and all these employment sites become accessible to the millions of vision challenges individuals, then employment opportunities should soar.

The current situation with almost all employment sites whether private or public is that any alternative way to access the job information is far from being equal and sometimes very discriminating.

Example almost of private companies only make their job offering available through their website. If a person calls about employment opportunity, he will be directed to the website, the only way to be connected to an alternative information sources is to announce that the announces his disability and then he is put through to a human or given an address to send a resume. This is no different than being asked about a disability before being offered a position. No disabled person wants to have to identify as disabled before the job application process begins.

To their credit most Federal employment sites have made an effort to support people who can not or do not have Internet access, but after reviewing these efforts, no one can compare them to using an employment website. It is difficult for normally sited individual to understand the frustration of comparing being able to read a list of job opportunities, being able to search by all sorts of criteria that the Internet allows and having to use a phone system to get this same information. www.usajob.opm.gov is a listing of all government jobs. By calling 1-479-757-3000 (a long-distance call for almost everyone), a person looking for a job can access that information by phone. Although it is well designed after trying it for a few minutes, it would be impossible to convince anyone using a phone to review over 13,000 jobs is anywhere equal to using the Internet. Being denied this Internet access just because the web page font is too small to read, makes the situation even more frustrating.

First federal legislation that actually mentioned vision impaired users specifically was Section 255 of Telecommunications Act of 1996 in referring to how vision impaired users are to be treated. Part 6.3 (1) (ii): Provide at least one mode that permits operation by users with visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200, without relying on audio output. (It is estimated that someone with 20/200 vision needs 24 — 32 point type on a web page). What many companies governed by the Telecommunications Act have overlooked is that this law covers not only telecommunication equipment but also as stated in Part 6.3 (2): (It covers) all information necessary to operate and use the product, including but not limited to, text, static or dynamic images, icons, labels, sounds, or incidental operating cues, comply with each of the following, assessed independently. What has happened since the bill was passed is that almost all of this covered information has been moved to the Internet exclusively.

The critical phrase in this law is that this content needed to be made available "without relying on audio". This was put into the bill specifically because many vision impaired users (especially the elderly) often don't hear well either.

The next significant legislation that came along that would significantly help the entire vision impaired community was the 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which became know as Section 508, which require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. Unfortunately, Section 508 does not increase " an individual's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily" at all unless that user one of about 100,000 people who need a screen reader to access Internet content. There is no way that the over 10 million vision impaired US Citizens who only needs a larger type on a web page to use information are going to be served by needing to use a screen reader to access this information.

What Happened?

The Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards from the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board which were to be the guidelines of for Section 508 and were based on the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines became:

Section 1194.27 Functional Performance Criteria This section requires that a product's operation and information retrieval functions be operable through at least one mode which meets each of the following paragraphs.

"Paragraph (b) provides that at least one mode of operation and information retrieval that does not require visual acuity greater than 20/70 (when corrected with glasses) must be provided in audio and enlarged print output that works together or independently. In the alternative, support for assistive technology used by people who are visually impaired must be provided. Although visual acuity of 20/200 is considered "legally blind," there are actually millions of Americans with vision below the 20/200 threshold who can still see enough to operate and get output from technology, often with just a little additional boost in contrast or font size. This paragraph requires either the provision of screen enlargement and voice output or, that the product support assistive technology. This provision is consistent with the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines and the recommendations of the advisory committee''.

The change from making information available to people with vision impaired without using audio, to separating that hearing and vision impaired allowed the Access Board interpreted this mean that content only needed to available either audio or enlarged text. This allows websites to be 508 compliant without making enlarged text available. This decision was made by the Access Board even though the Telecommunication Act specifically require large type, without audio and even in the above guidelines state that many people considered legally blind could access content " technology, often with just a little additional boost in contrast or font size".

What is more interesting is that Access Board's Economic Assessment of these standards mention the benefit of making web sites with larger type as a benefit to other federal employees as well. (http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/assessment.htm)

5.2 Who is Likely to Experience Benefits From Standards?

Other individuals and entities are also likely to benefit from these standards:

* Federal employees who are not disabled, or do not consider themselves to have a disability, may benefit from increased usability of electronic and information technology associated with accessibility. For example, the ability to increase the size of text on a computer screen may be necessary to make the technology accessible to an individual with limited vision, but it can also provide benefits to an employee who is moderately farsighted or simply prefers larger text.

There is little question that as part of the economic assessment of 508, that the evaluators were anticipating that all Federal Web Sites would be available users needing larger type and that would improve all Federal employees working environment. This clearly considered a benefit of Section 508.

Even Section 508 includes:

Functional Performance Criteria (Subpart C)

The performance requirements of this section are intended for overall product evaluation and for technologies or components for which there is no specific requirement under the technical standards in Subpart B. These criteria are designed to ensure that the individual accessible components work together to create an accessible product. They cover operation, including input and control functions, operation of mechanical mechanisms, and access to visual and audible information. These provisions are structured to allow people with sensory or physical disabilities to locate, identify, and operate input, control and mechanical functions and to access the information provided, including text, static or dynamic images, icons, labels, sounds or incidental operating cues. For example, one provision requires that at least one mode allow operation by people with vision impaired (visual acuity between 20/70 and 20/200) without relying on audio input since many people with vision impaired may also have a hearing loss.

Which would seem to mean that Internet content should be made accessible to this class of disabled uses depending on audio (as was intent in Telecommunications Act) until one realizes that this sections only applies to areas with no other specific requirements. After reading the specific requirements, which for websites basically means making web sites accessible to screen reader and the comprehensiveness the rest of the guidelines, it is hard to determine what technology falls under Functional Performance Criteria (Subpart C)

By not requiring federal websites to be available in enlarged fonts, the unfortunate consequence of this decision is that millions of vision impaired users who should be able have larger type on a web pages, are left with no real solution under 508. Although laudable, making all federal website accessible the 100,000 screen reader users, the 10 million plus users who need enlarged type have been short-changed.

The one guideline that 508 does make to vision impaired users is web pages must honor user-defined style sheets, which is a total ineffective way for vision impaired users who needs larger type. Even though styles sheets would certainly make 508 compliant pages usable, when a user goes to sites that did not honor user defined style sheets (which is the rest of the Internet), many pages immediately become completely unreadable and the user can become completely lost.

The reason that the requirement to make web site accessible to people needing larger type size probably was that when these rules were written it was impossible to make web sites accessible to vision impaired users -- without maintaining duplicate websites one for normal users and one or more for vision impaired. Policy makers felt the cost required to accomplish this would have been too high and, therefore an 'impediment' to 'reasonable' compliance.

Since this rules were created, Internet technology has developed to easily allow this kind of specialized access. Examples can be found at www.section508.gov and another at www.ionwebsyes.com, that allow the user to easily control the displayed type size on a web page.