The World Wide Web has become an integral part of how people communicate today. At MIT, it's a primary tool for presenting the Institute's public image and for communicating with its various constituencies.
Unfortunately, as the web has become increasingly graphics-intensive, people with visual impairments have been cut off from a significant portion of web content. Similarly, people with hearing impairments cannot access content posted in audio formats -- such as interviews, news reports and music files. Inaccessible web page design can also affect those with cognitive and physical disabilities.
Recognizing the web's central role, MIT has developed a policy and principles to ensure that people with disabilities have reasonable access to online information. MIT's new policy was crafted by a team drawn from the Provost's Office, the Personnel Office, Information Systems and the Adaptive Technology for Information and Computing Lab, along with legal counsel. The web accessibility policy and principles are based on language in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that apply to "effective communication."
The good news is that designing web pages to be accessible by all users is easy to do in most cases. The most comprehensive guidelines that address this issue were released recently by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) based at MIT. The group's Web Accessibility Initiative aims to eliminate the need for extensive retrofitting by educating developers and designers about accessibility issues before the release of web pages.
MIT's own web accessibility policy mandates that all web pages associated with administration and services, courses of instruction, departmental programs and Institute-sponsored activities must conform to a set of web accessibility principles. These principles, along with a statement of MIT's new policy , are available on line.
Starting this fall, Information Systems plans to offer a free Quick Start class that covers techniques to make web pages accessible to those with disabilities. For dates and locations, check the monthly IS calendar card that arrives via campus mail.
The W3C guidelines are available on line. If these guidelines seem a bit overwhelming at first, start with the Checklist, and use the Quick Tips to remember key points.
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 5).