California Bar Journal
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Web access for visually disabled
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Dana ShultzHave you thought about how the visually disabled might perceive your Website? Until recently, I surely had not.

The visually disabled can use devices called screen readers, which convert the words on the screen into spoken form so the user can hear them.

Screen readers work well with straightforward text, such as e-mail messages and word processing documents. Websites, on the other hand, can cause problems.

Creating confusion

Just think about the visually-oriented capabilities that Websites include nowadays. Displays are divided into frames that scroll independently. Tables appear everywhere. Graphics abound. These features, and more, confuse screen readers.

In May, the World Wide Web Consortium issued Version 1.0 of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (

WAI/GL/). The guidelines explain how Website authors and designers can make Web content accessible to people with disabilities.

If you are interested to know how well your Website complies with the guidelines, go to the Center for Applied Special Technology Website ( CAST provides a free service called Bobby that analyzes Web pages for compliance with the W3C guidelines.

Bobby also provides additional recommendations regarding accessibility and identifies browser incompatibility problems.

I submitted the home pages for my two Websites to Bobby, which approved the first but not the second. The second home page failed because I had included two images without alternative text ("alt=" tag).

The images are not particularly significant - one is a logo, the other is a decorative photo. Neverthe-less, Bobby made a point that I had not considered: Whereas sighted users immediately understand the significance of the graphics, visually disabled users do not have a clue - they just know that they cannot perceive those graphics.

ADA compliance

Is eagerness to help the disabled the only reason to consider accessibility? No - the Americans with Disabilities Act provides incentives.

Under the public-accommodation provisions of the ADA, businesses providing information in print or via computer must offer alternative means to ensure that they can effectively convey the information to the visually disabled. How to best meet this requirement depends on both the information and the capabilities and resources available to the disabled individual.

For example, a short brochure could be read to the disabled individual. On the other hand, a contract might require an alternative means of communication, such as Braille, to be presented and analyzed effectively.

ADA's remedies include injunctions and attorneys' fees. However, California's remedies for ADA violations go further, specifying minimum damages of $1,000 per incident for each affected individual.

So look at your Website. Can a user with a screen reader navigate it effectively? If not, you should consider changing it to reduce the risk of an ADA violation.


I thank Berkeley attorney Lainey Feingold (510/848-8125, for bringing Website accessibility to my attention and for providing much of the information in this article.

Accessibility issues exist for technologies other than the Web, as well. Representing the California Council of the Blind and individual blind consumers, Feingold successfully negotiated agreements by which major financial institutions will add speech capabilities to their automated teller machines.

Dana Shultz is an Oakland-based certified management consultant, speaker and coach specializing in office technology. He may be reached by e-mail at and on the web at