Is your Web site accessible to everyone? Are you sure?

Volume 30 Number 5

By

Most bar associations have as part of their mission promoting access to the justice system for all, especially those who are unable to afford it. Many have information on their Web sites about programs that can help the less fortunate gain access to lawyers and legal help for free or at low cost.

But what if part of that audience, as well as association members and the general public, couldn’t get to the information because the site wasn’t designed to be accessed by those with disabilities, such as vision impairment?

“Why would you want to cut off part of your audience?” asks Catherine Sanders Reach, associate director of the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center.

Focusing on the accessibility of bar association Web sites to those who have vision disabilities, Bar Leader worked with Erin Pruitt, a Minneapolis-based teacher who has a genetic retinal disorder, and who uses screen reader software to work with her computer. Pruitt uses JAWS, one of a number of products that take the text information on a computer screen and convert it to digitized speech, which it then plays through the computer’s speaker.

In an unscientific study, Bar Leader asked Pruitt to examine a number of bar association Web sites. The associations were chosen to get a mix of bars of all sizes, state and local, voluntary and unified, all over the country. Pruitt was asked to access information for the general public, and also information for lawyers, such as how to join and upcoming CLE and other events.

The results were a mixed bag. Some of the sites did quite well, presenting no problems for Pruitt in finding information, while others presented some difficulties.

‘Accessible by everybody’

The South Carolina Bar’s site was “very accessible,” Pruitt says. “JAWS was able to click on every link I tried, and read the information provided on the successive pages, both for members and the public.”

That was good news for Andrew Clemons, the bar’s communications director. “Accessibility was definitely one of the factors that was considered” when the South Carolina Bar redesigned the site about three years ago, Clemons said. The site contains a lot of text, and includes alternate text (ALT) tags, pieces of text that describe images for screen readers and those who don’t display images in their browsers, Clemons notes.

“We serve our members and the public. You really need to take [accessibility] into account, so that the information is not only there, but it’s accessible by everybody,” Clemons says.

The El Paso (Texas) Bar Association and the West Virginia Bar Association fared equally well, presenting no problems for the JAWS software.

EPBA Executive Director Nancy Gallego says the person who developed the bar’s site was told to “make it accessible for everyone,” although no specific instructions were given to make the site work with screen readers. WVBA Executive Director Pryce M. Haynes II says his bar relied on its Web developer to make the site work properly, but gave no specific instructions regarding accessibility for the disabled.

Gallego and Haynes were among the vast majority of bar leaders interviewed for this article who say that they have never heard the subject of Web site accessibility discussed among their colleagues, either at NABE functions or at other gatherings. It’s not up to the executive director to know the ins and outs of how to make a Web site accessible, says the ABA’s Reach. “That’s what the developer needs to be thinking about. What the bar association needs to address is the bigger picture: ‘When we have a site developed or rebuilt, accessibility must be built in.’ ” (For information on where to find those nitty-gritty details—perhaps to pass along to the Web developer—see “Toward maximum access,” page 25.)

An ongoing effort

While some bars were completely accessible to Pruitt’s software, she encountered varying levels of difficulty at some of the others. The Washington State Bar Association’s site was “an easy site to use,” in general, Pruitt notes. However, JAWS had trouble with the formatting of some text-heavy pages, which required Pruitt to repeatedly press keys to get the software to keep reading the page. “It made reading the content onerous,” she says.

Coincidentally, the WSBA is in the planning stages of “having the site assessed for people with disabilities,” says Judy Berrett, the bar’s director of member and community relations. There is a member of the bar’s board of governors who has devoted his career to disability issues, Berrett notes. There is also a new bar association forming in the state that is devoted to attorneys with disabilities. “This has certainly raised our awareness” of disabilities issues, and led to the plan for the study of the Web site, Berrett says.

Pruitt was able to read most of the information on the Connecticut Bar Association’s site, but had trouble with links to the “Public” and “CLE” portions of the site, and also had trouble with some list boxes used for searching the site. There was also some code on many of the pages that made them “cumbersome” to read through, Pruitt says.

CBA Executive Director Tim Hazen says that while the bar has worked to be sure that association-sponsored events such as CLE seminars accommodate those with disabilities, Web site accessibility “hasn’t been on the radar screen.” The bar has never received any complaints from members or the public about site accessibility, he notes. The CBA is always updating its site, and will be sure to examine the issues raised by Pruitt’s informal test, he says.

One large metro bar that asked not to be identified presented some trouble for Pruitt’s software. While the bulk of the site was accessible, there were problems with the site’s search engine, some links that did not go to the correct page, many pop-up windows, which can cause problems for JAWS, and some incorrectly formatted pages.

“Like many organizations, we’ve come to the conclusion that our Web site is in need of a master revamp,” says a spokesperson for the bar. The bar is in the early stages of planning the overhaul, and will make “accessibility to all visitors” part of the plan. “Our new Web site will put functionality first,” the spokesperson says.

The Ohio State Bar Association’s site gave Pruitt’s software the most difficulty. Most of the links on the site’s home page couldn’t be read by JAWS, and she received an error message from the site noting that she was using an older Macintosh browser. JAWS is a Windows-based program.

“When we redesigned the site a year or so ago, we thought we were in pretty good shape” as far as accessibility, says Fred Engel, the bar’s director of technology. “We’ve slipped as far as the maintenance of all of that,” Engel adds.

Web browsers can be more forgiving of improperly formatted code than a screen reader is, he says. So problems wouldn’t necessarily be evident until someone using software like Pruitt’s tried to access the site.

“I guess the good news is that this is the first we’ve heard of this being a problem, but now that we know it is, we want to make sure it isn’t one for anybody else,” says Ken Brown, director of public relations at the Ohio state bar.

Redesign eases access

Bar Leader asked Pruitt to check out the ABA’s Web site, too. “All the links worked, that I tried, and the content was easy to read,” she reports. Pruitt had no trouble using such tools as the advanced search and the lawyer locator. List boxes on the “member groups”page and the home page search were problematic for her software, though.

ABA webmaster Fred Faulkner is pleased with the overall good result, and says a redesign currently under way should make the site much easier for those with visual impairments to use. “We know there are lawyers and public visitors out there who use screen readers and who need information we provide on our Web site,” Faulkner says. Content owners and publishers—such as individual ABA entities—are being encouraged to replace links that simply say “click here” with ones that provide more descriptive text regarding what type of content the link points to, he notes. The redesigned site has features built in specifically for those using a screen reader, he adds, and will allow these users the option of jumping straight to the content or navigation, rather than “wading through repetitive content such as logos, log-in menus, and search.” Users will also be able to increase the site’s font size through their Web browsers.

As for the problems Pruitt encountered, Faulkner says he's aware that list boxes can be problematic, and will look into possible solutions. The search engine was recently switched to a different provider, he notes, which may well have taken care of the problem Pruitt had with that function. Besides a number of tools Faulkner uses to ensure that the site is accessible, he says he also benefits from a personal connection—Jonathan Simeone, a recent hire in the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law. Simeone is blind and has been giving feedback to Faulkner as he continues to use the ABA Web site and as the redesign progresses.

Pruitt says about one in 10 Web sites are inaccessible to her in her general Web surfing, and this seemed to hold true for the bar association sites she tested, too. She notes that screen reading software allows her to read magazines and other online content that would otherwise be unavailable. “It’s very easy for someone with my disability to not know what’s going on out there,” she says.

—By Dan Kittay

 

TOWARD MAXIMUM ACCESS

If you want to know more about making your Web site accessible to the disabled, here are some resources for you, or for your Web developer.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an entity that “develops strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities,” according to its Web site, www.w3.org/WAI/. WAI is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops guidelines for keeping the Web running well.

WAI is in the process of creating version 2.0 of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which help developers learn how to set up sites for maximum access. The WAI site is optimized for screen readers, and also offers visitors the option to change the size and colors of text.

One of WAI’s recommendations is similar to what was done for this article: When designing or redesigning a site, the group recommends working with people who have disabilities, particularly visual impairments. How do they navigate your site—and how well does the site work with their screen reader or other assistive technology?

A portion of the site that might be particularly useful to Web developers is at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/appendixB.html. This checklist, which addresses all manner of disabilities, gives highly detailed information on exactly how to ensure that your site is as accessible as it can be.

Another resource is a set of guidelines at www.section508.gov/. While required only of federal agencies, these guidelines, from section 508 of the U.S. Code, are often used when making sites accessible.

—D.K.

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