This month we attended the conference on Culture and Social Responsibility ‘3.0 Communication and Total Accessibility’, organized by the Museu Marítim de Barcelona. With the participation of experts, people with disabilities and developers of associated technologies, the conference dealt with some of the keys to achieving a ‘virtual/digital’ world without barriers.
Although great advances have been made, much remains to be done and our cultural institutions have a crucial role to play in facilitating access to culture for everyone. In this article we will focus on the issue of accessibility in relation to the web.
In their daily lives, people with disabilities face a world full of barriers, and the information and communication technologies (ICT) are no exception. The ICTs are vital for their potential to enable millions of people with disabilities to develop full social and cultural lives every day, and this is why it is so important work to make them accessible to all.
The ever-greater integration of ICT into daily life, work and culture means that the digital divide is especially prejudicial to those who do not have access to products and services. One way to overcome this divide is to implement policies on web accessibility, so that everyone can use the Internet in a satisfactory manner, irrespective of their limitations, whether physical or environment-related.
‘The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.’ Tim Berners-Lee, W3C director and inventor of the World Wide Web.
To appreciate the importance of web accessibility, let’s ask ourselves the following question:
How do people with disabilities surf the Internet?
We should bear in mind that people with disabilities enter the web with the aid of support products. Examples of support technologies are screen readers that read aloud what is on the computer screen for people who are unable to see or read it, and voice input software and push buttons for people who cannot use a keyboard or a mouse. It is essential to understand that people access the web in many different ways if we are to apply the principles of accessible design properly and guarantee universal access to the greatest possible number of users.
The Museu Picasso home page viewed with a web browser in text mode
Here are some of the principles for ensuring that websites are accessible:
Provide adequate alternative text
Alternative text provides a textual equivalent to non-textual content such as images, animations or videos. It is especially useful for people with visual impairment who rely on a screen reader to access the contents of a website.
Subtitle and/or provide transcripts
It is important to provide subtitles and a transcript of the video and audio content. With archived audio, a transcript may be sufficient.
Ensure that links make sense out of context
Every link must make sense if the link text is read on its own. Given that users of screen readers may choose to read only the links on a website, terms such as ‘click here’ and ‘more’ should be avoided.
Ensure the accessibility of content that is not HTML
PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Adobe Flash content and so on.
Organization of the web page
Use headings, lists and a consistent structure and, if possible, use the CSS language for the layout.
Las Meninas (group) viewed with a web browser in text mode
In this image we can see how content is interpreted by a support product, whether it be a screen reader or a text-mode web browser for blind people and those with severely impaired sight. The web content is linear and text-based, and detects the headers and the links on the page — hence the importance of a proper logical structure.
The content of the pages should be structured with header labels — <h1>, <h2>, etc — because the majority of screen readers and some browsers allow the user to navigate within a site by ‘jumping’ from one header to the next, allowing them to get to the information they are looking for more quickly.
Among other things, we must also describe in detail all of the actions that can be carried out to make navigation easier for the user.
In relation to the difficulties that people with visual disabilities encounter in navigating a website, Santiago Moese (ONCE) gave us a number of guidelines by which museums can improve access to information. For example:
- When we enter a website it should be easy to find the information links on the homepage (times, prices, how to get there, virtual tour, etc).
- It is very important to have RSS feeds for the exhibitions, given that museums today are so active.
- It must be possible to download the information.
- We should be able to access and download the audio guide in MP3 format. In this way, when we visit the museum we can have it loaded on our own player, making the whole process much easier.
- Audio-visual materials should be readily accessible, with subtitles for people with hearing disabilities.
The conference speakers positively rated the extent to which the accessibility of web pages has improved in recent years. However, it is essential to keep up the good work and be aware of the barriers that confront people with disabilities.