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Making the web more accessible to people with disabilities and special needs

25 February 2011 Inderscience

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

Writing in the International Journal of Knowledge and Web Intelligence, the team, based at the University of Szeged, suggests how theoretical and practical dimensions of screen structure, data structure and metadata can be analysed and used to promote universal accessibility.

Medical informatics expert Erzsébet Forczek, explains that access to the Internet, and more specifically the world wide web, 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," says Forczek. "However, for information to become global, it is not sufficient merely for it to appear on the web; 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 health care and in virtually every other sphere of life." She adds that, "We have to consider how disabled people can access the information available on websites and how they can utilise it. By providing additional physical accessibility, we can extend the group of end-users."

Forczek has investigated how well the needs of the visually impaired are addressed by web sites, especially those offering multimedia. Similarly, those with hearing impairment 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," says Forczek. Similarly, software that addresses the issues faced by people with special needs is essential for accessibility, Forczek adds.

Particular aspects of web design that must be taken into consideration in ensuring as wide accessibility as possible include: 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, clarification of the meaning of any acronyms used, the provision of alternative texts for non-textual information, such as images and audio files, the provision of synchronised alternatives to time-dependent media, such as 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. Forczek suggests that in addition to these considerations meta data must be used correctly to make the information more readily available through search.

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