Online news sites have poor accessibility, study finds

8:43:29 AM CDT - Friday, September 24, 2004

While daily newspapers have created sophisticated online publications, they have neglected to make them accessible to people with disabilities, according to a study conducted by Wichita State University adjunct professor David Kamerer and a team of graduate researchers from the Elliott School of Communication at WSU.

The group examined the online publications of 89 U.S. daily newspapers in a random sampling and found an average of 146 accessibility violations on their home pages. The team also found that larger and more sophisticated newspapers were more likely to violate accessibility principles than were smaller newspapers. The papers included in the study ranged in size from a half-million to 1,000 subscribers, as reported in Editor and Publisher Yearbook.

"We want to be sure that people with disabilities are not abandoned on the wrong side of the digital divide," said Kamerer. "As more of our news becomes distributed electronically, and as our disabled population continues to grow, this issue will become one of increasing importance.

"Most newspapers had horrible scores," Kamerer said. Lots of design or multimedia elements caused the sites to be less accessible, he noted.

A handful of newspapers in the study had few or no accessibility errors, which shows that constructing an accessible site can be done, Kamerer said. The most accessible sites were from modest-sized community newspapers.

"This shows that accessibility is more about awareness and choosing to do the right thing, rather than large expenditures of time and money," Kamerer said.

Most of the accessibility violations make the publications difficult to use with screen reading software. This software turns the text on the page into spoken speech, and is commonly used by individuals who are blind.

Each picture on a Web site should have an "alt" tag, which is hidden text that the screen reader can use to describe a picture. The study found an average of 32 alt tag violations on home pages. Other visual elements, such as navigation buttons and image maps, also require alt tags in order to be accessible.

"Writing an alt tag is neither technically difficult nor time-consuming," said Kamerer. "It's very similar to writing a cutline that accompanies a photo."
The major issue affecting individuals with low vision are that most Web sites were not built to enlarge to the size of the viewer's screen, Kamerer noted. The average home page had 53 violations of this nature.

"Many designers like to lay out their page using absolute measures, like a window that is 200 pixels wide," said Kamerer. "But if they lay out their page using percentage values, the window will scale to fill the screen. This can be very useful for someone with low vision who wants to take advantage of a large monitor."

Other accessibility features investigated by the study were related to individuals with a physical disability. For example, some individuals can't use a mouse, so sites should be constructed to be navigable with cursor keys only.

The accessibility standards used in the study are called "Bobby" standards and are published at www.cast.org/bobby. They are widely used by individuals who build accessible Web sites, according to Kamerer. The Bobby standards are similar to U.S. government "Section 508" accessibility standards, which are required on all government and government contractor Web sites. WSU's Web site, www.wichita.edu, for example, complies with the Section 508 standards because the university receives federal funds.

While Section 508 does not govern newspapers, it doesn't mean they shouldn't try to be accessible, Kamerer said.

"You wouldn't think of building a sidewalk without curb cuts, or an office without wheelchair access," he said. "We just want to encourage publishers to make electronic curb cuts as they build their online editions."

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