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December 01, 2000

"Electronic Curbcuts" The ADA in Cyberspace - Human Rights Magazine, Winter 2000

"Electronic Curbcuts" The ADA in Cyberspace

By Cynthia D. Waddell

(Please note - the author no longer works for the city of San Jose, California.)

Our nation’s system of disability rights law is centered around the goals of removing societal barriers to people with disabilities and committing to full and equal opportunity for access. We have slowly but surely addressed the removal of barriers to participation by persons with disabilities in the physical world. Wheelchair ramps and handrails are a staple in building design these days, as are elevators with audible signals and Brailled elevator buttons. But we must now address a new set of societal barriers in the upcoming century, namely, the growing barriers to equal access on the World Wide Web.

Access to electronic and information technology for people with disabilities is emerging as a significant law and policy issue. Unless attention is paid to accessible Web design, this period of rapid technological development will create a digital divide locking out people from participation on the Web on the basis of disability. As the City of San Jose compliance officer for state and federal disability access laws, this issue first came to my attention in 1995 when an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) administrative complaint was filed against the city for maintaining an inaccessible Website. A blind city commissioner, appointed by the city council to advise it on disability access matters, could not access city council documents posted on the city Website in portable document format (PDF). Because her screen reader could not audibly read the document out loud due to this inaccessible format, a complaint was lodged.

In response to the monitoring of ADA Internet complaints and the need to incorporate city ADA implementation policies, the City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard was developed in 1996. Shortly thereafter, a U.S. Department of Justice policy letter was issued stating that ADA accessibility requirements apply to Internet Webpages and that the "effective communication" rationale applied to both ADA Titles II and III entities. ( See 10 National Disability Law Reporter ¶ 240.) In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has issued a growing number of significant Letters of Resolution affecting Web accessibility at higher education institutions in California. And these are only some of the indicators bringing Web accessibility to the forefront.

This article briefly defines the problem, offers some solutions, and highlights the significant events of the past year concerning U.S. public policy and the removal of barriers to participation in the digital economy and the Web.

Defining the Problem

Because the Web has rapidly advanced from a text-based communication format to a graphical format embracing audio and video clip tools, persons with disabilities cannot navigate Websites unless Webpages are designed in an accessible format. Just as curbcuts enable persons using wheelchairs to navigate a city, "electronic curbcuts" enable persons with hearing, visual, and learning disabilities to navigate Webpages.

For example, a person with a hearing disability cannot hear a Webcast or video clip if it is not captioned. Similarly, a person with visual and learning disabilities cannot navigate a Webpage that is not coded to convey Web content to text browsers and screen readers. (For further discussion of this, see the sidebar on this page.) Inaccessible Webpage design either hides text within images, frames, applets, or animated gifs or renders the text unintelligently in table, columnar, or portable document format (pdf). Even online forms are inaccessible, especially when designed to prevent keyboard navigation and input. Whether the form is posted for school, registration, or online banking or shopping transactions, people with visual and/or mobility disabilities face significant barriers to participation.

Yet the benefits of accessible Web design extend beyond the community of people with disabilities and an aging population. The functionality required by the disability community means that accessible Web design enables dynamic Websites, whether it is for business transactions, voting, or long-distance learning. Many other benefits are also emerging in the application of accessible Web design. It enables low technology to access high technology and provides substantial business incentives for technology transfer in underdeveloped countries and populations that do not have state-of-the-art technology. Accessible Web design features enable compact disk technology and videotapes to be archived with word search capabilities due to text captioning. These design features also enable small screens on personal digital assistants and cell phones to reach the content of the Web. Even people who are illiterate can access the Web because screen readers can audibly read the text out loud from accessible Webpages, electronic textbooks, and Internet kiosks.

Setting Accessible Web Design Standards

In June 1996, the City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard was developed to respond to ADA Internet complaints and to incorporate city ADA implementation policies. By integrating the requirements of the ADA and applying universal design principles, we have ensured the widest public access to city electronic government information and services. Currently, these standards are being incorporated into our Website and are subject to change as technology advances to solve digital barriers and integrate electronic curbcuts into Web authoring tools.

There are seven basic requirements in our minimum accessible Web design standard:

  1. Provide an access instruction page for visitors. This page publishes the contact name and e-mail address of the ADA coordinator responsible for investigating and resolving ADA Title II complaints, as required under the statute, and facilitates the internal resolution of complaints concerning inaccessible Web design.
  2. Provide support for text browsers. Ideally, a Website should display the same information on the Webpage for all visitors and should not require the maintenance of a separate, text-only site. Anecdotal evidence suggests that maintaining parallel Websites translates to higher cost and that Webmasters tend to update graphical versions and not text-only versions.
  3. Attach "alt" tags to graphic images so that screen readers can identify the graphic. Screen readers cannot audibly read out loud the text or links embedded within graphic images. This is also true for screen readers encountering a PDF document. Visitors to Websites with slow modems have also found that they can quickly download a Website utilizing "alt" tags by turning off their graphics. Personal digital assistants and cell phones can also access the content of the Web on their small screens.

  4. Hyperlink photographs with descriptive text "D." We adopted this feature from the Center for Accessible Media.
  5. Caption all audio and video clips by using "CC" hyperlinks. We also adopted this feature from the Center for Accessible Media.
  6. Provide alternative mechanisms for online forms. Online forms that enable keyboard navigation without a mouse are helpful but can be difficult to read by certain text browsers. A good customer service strategy in addition to providing keyboard navigation is to provide an e-mail address or a voice/TTY phone number as an alternative means of communication.
  7. Avoid access barriers such as the posting of documents in PDF, table, newspaper, or frame format, or requiring visitors to download software. If posting in PDF, the HTML text or ASCII file must also be posted. See our design standard at the City of San Jose Website mentioned above.

Recapping Recent Developments

In April 1999, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno directed that all federal agencies must conduct self-evaluations of their electronic and information technology and report on the extent of accessibility for people with disabilities. These self-evaluations were to include Website design. This directive responded to Pub. L. No. 105-220 (Aug. 7, 1998), an amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

By February 2000, many expect the U.S. Access Board to issue standards that will define what is meant by electronic and information technology, including accessible Web design. In addition, the standards are expected to set forth the technical and functional performance criteria for accessibility implementation.

Two interesting features of the amendment to section 508 are (1) federal contracting officers will be held personally liable for violations of the access law in their procurement of products and services, and (2) losing bidders to federal contracts can challenge the award if they believe they can provide a more accessible product or service.

Yet another development on the accessibility front was announced in May 1999 when the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the first stable international specification for designing accessible Websites.

Following up on the W3C announcement, in August 1999 the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges released guidelines entitled "Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities" and announced that all California community colleges must comply with the W3C Web accessibility guidelines at a priority one level. This action responds to the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, Web accessibility complaints and is a model for the nation.


Building an accessible Website is a necessity as the Web becomes an everyday tool for communication, work, and play. Electronic "curbcuts"—accessible Web design elements—need to be addressed in all Website construction. It now appears that our nation has reached a significant crossroad where our policies, technology, and purchasing choices will determine whether or not every person will participate in the digital economy. The impact is systemic and reaches all sectors of our economy. Rather than promoting a digital divide, we must address accessible Web design so that everyone can participate, regardless of age, disability, or the limitations of the available technology.

Cynthia D. Waddell is the Disability Access Coordinator for the City of San Jose, California. Named to the "Top 25 Women on the Web" by Webgrrls International, Ms. Waddell’s Web accessibility effort has received national and international recognition as a "best practices" model.

Author’s Note: I first addressed this issue before the American Bar Association in June 1998 at the national summit "In Pursuit . . . A Blueprint for Disability Law and Policy." (See I was thereafter commissioned by the federal government to write a paper, "The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation," for the May 1999 Digital Economy White House Conference convened by President Clinton. (See <> under "Conference Papers.")