Concerns regarding the accessibility of the Internet to people with disabilities were aired last week with the publication of a report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).
While the report notes advances in this area made by some Internet services providers, banks and the Federal Government, it also highlights some of the ways in which Web sites can be made accessible to elderly or disabled people.
Joanne Ongley, occupational therapist with the Northcott Technology computer-assisted technology team, pointed out that Web developers should pay special attention to design features such as download times, graphics and links when designing their Web sites to make them more widely accessible.
"You have to take all the commonsense stuff to an extreme. Things like slow download speed and complex design are inconvenient for most people, but when you have a disability, these things can make a Web site completely unusable.
Designers have to keep the number of clicks needed to find information down to a minimum," Ongley explained.
Ongley observed that although there are a variety of hardware options available to people with limited mobility, accessibility was still largely dependent on design.
"We can furnish clients with all the peripherals they need to use a computer but it still takes a lot longer to get around a Web site when you are using special equipment," she said.
The Internet can offer a wide range of opportunities for disabled people, especially those, like paraplegics and quadraplegics, who are restricted in their movements. Well-designed sites can provide housebound people with the ability to fulfill many basic needs.
"As long as they have access to a computer, people with quadriplegia can now do all their own grocery shopping via the Net, whereas before they may have had to rely on others," Ongley said.
Responses to the report have been varied. While the majority of Web developers recognise the importance of design as a factor in making a site more accessable, some pointed out that they have not received much interest from the disabled community itself.
"Most developers would look in terms of the target audience and factor that into how they design their sites. We follow what the client asks for, and accessibility for people with disabilities has not been high on our clients' agenda," said Derek Chan, technical director of Sydney-based Internet imaging company, Realview Technologies.
Many developers pointed out that if accessibility options required extra time and code, and hence cost, companies may restrict their target market accordingly.
Tom Spence, a Web designer at Sydney-based design studio Red Ant, pointed out that there is an important difference between designing sites specifically for people with disabilities and designing a site that can be accessed by people with disabilities.
"The main difference is visual. You have to simplify the way things look, you can't have anything misleading that might confuse people or slow things down.
You have to make the links obvious and include alternative wording for graphics," Spence explained.
HREOC has welcomed a community-wide approach to accessible Web site design, initiated in part by the Australian Bankers' Association, which has already set up its own internal working group to further develop this area.
The Internet Industry Association also reportedly plans to run an awareness campaign among members to promote better access to Web sites and Internet-based services.
Additionally, there is an online service called Bobby created by the US-based Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST), which allows developers to submit their sites to check how accessible they are for people with disabilities.
Although originating in the US, the site provides a useful industry standard which Web developers can follow to create widely accessible sites, said Ongley.www.cast.org/bobby