Europeans target better web access for people with disabilities

Europe, March 17 2011

Mar 17: For people around the world the Internet has become the first port of call for most information. However, researchers in Hungary believe that much of the information posted on the web does not meet the demands of users with disabilities. Writing in the International Journal of Knowledge and Web Intelligence, the research team explains how theoretical and practical dimensions of screen structure, data structure and metadata can be analysed and used to promote universal accessibility.

In posting information to the Internet, one of the main aims is for that information to reach as many people aspossible. That usually means achieving a prominent position in the search engine results pages, providing legible and attractive enough information so that potential readers desire to read it and to ensure that it meets the demands of users with   disabilities. Researchers from the University of Szeged believe that only if all these criteria are fulfilled does a website become truly accessible.

Medical informatics expert Erzsébet Forczek explained that access to the Internet has become essential for all members of society. Physical access is a prerequisite but the availability, retrieval and processing of information on the web must be supported by information technology.

‘Information on the web is global in the sense that it can be seen or used by anyone around the world,’ said Ms Forczek. However, she pointed out that for information to become global, ‘it is not sufficient merely for it to appear on the web’. According to her, ‘It has to be searchable, and its contents identifiable and interpretable, since immediately available information is crucial in economic and business life, in education, in research, in healthcare and in virtually every other sphere of life.’

‘We have to consider how disabled people can access the information available on websites and how they can utilise it,’ she said, adding that ‘by providing additional physical accessibility, we can extend the group of end-users.’

Ms Forczek investigated how well the needs of the visually impaired are addressed by websites, especially those offering multimedia. Similarly, she found that those with hearing impairments are often excluded from audio media. ‘The most important principle of accessibility to a web page is to provide alternatives for the different media applications and their navigating functions,’ she said. Similarly, software that addresses the issues faced by people with special needs is essential for accessibility.

Ms Forczek explained that aspects of web design that must be considered for ensuring as wide an accessibility as possible include, in particular, a syntactically and semantically correct web page that can be parsed correctly by assistive software. The use of style sheets to allow a page to be rendered fully in alternative formats is also important, as is the clarification of the meaning of any acronyms used.

Other important aspects to improve accessibility include the provision of alternative texts for non-textual information, such as images and audio files, the provision of synchronised alternatives to time-dependent media, like audio applications or videos, and the provision of full navigation via the keyboard so that mouse control is not a prerequisite for accessing the information, according to her.

Ms Forczek suggested that in addition to these considerations metadata must be used correctly to make the information more readily available through a search engine. ‘Consideration of these issues is inevitable, since they all contribute to reach a wider circle of end-users,’ she said.


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