Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Accessibility: CHI 2001 and Beyond

Leona Carpenter reports on the key issue of accessibility as covered at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference held in Seattle, and also provides a round-up of sources of further information.

The “CHI” series of conferences sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (ACM-SIGCHI) [1], in partnership with, among others, the British HCI Group, is the premier international conference on human aspects of computing. CHI2001: anyone. anywhere. [2], held in Seattle from 31 March – 5 April, focussed on the pervasiveness of information and communication technology (ICT) in contemporary life and the consequent imperative to make ICT accessible to people, whatever their characteristics or location. Along with mobile computing and internationalisation, accessibility for people with functional limitations was a key theme of the conference. This theme was touched upon by one of his colleagues in Bill Gates’ opening plenary remarks “Advancing the user experience”, and addressed in detail by Gregg Vanderheiden in his inspiring yet pragmatic closing plenary talk "Why do we? Why can't we? Future perspective and research directions" on designing standard mass-market products so that everyone can use them.

CHI 2001 Opening Plenary – The Two Bills

Bill Gates (Chairman and Chief Software Architect of Microsoft) focussed his plenary remarks on research and development projects within his company that have innovative human/computer interface elements, bringing in three of his colleagues to flesh out details of their work on support for digital reading, tablet computers you take anywhere and on which you can write with digital ink, and prioritisation and notification systems [3]. The “anywhere” concept was clearly intrinsic to much of this work, but “anyone” less so. However, the accessibility strand of the “anyone” conference theme did emerge in the presentation of Bill Hill, readability researcher on the Microsoft Reader team [4]. The standard features either currently implemented or under development for the Reader include some that support readers with visual impairment. An automatic large print facility involves adjusting the spacing between the lines, re-hyphenating words, re-justifying paragraphs, and repaginating; all this without disturbing the reading experience. A speech-driven interface and a text-to-speech facility would be useful for all, as well as essential for blind readers. Bill Hill’s vision for accessibility of publications is that through electronic books the accessible version is the same version at the same price and published at the same time as the ordinary version, with no need to wait for later, heavier, and perhaps more expensive large print, Braille or recorded speech editions.

CHI 2001 Closing Plenary – Trying Harder

Greg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin [5], cited curb ramps, captions on television, mouse keys, typewriters, carbon paper, Jacuzzis, and LP records as examples of products that were originally designed for people with disabilities which have become mass-market (and hence profitable) products. His design ideal is not doing something special for special people, but rather learning to design flexible interfaces we all can use. Making it possible for people (who otherwise could not) to get jobs and keep them, to do banking and other activities required to live independently, could be profitable because products designed like this may be better for others as well. Two of the examples he provided of this kind of design were E-books where text enlargement and voice output are standard for all options (assisting people with visual impairment), and web pages which provided a way to shut off animations (assisting people with attention deficit). He also pointed out that all the things which are important for mobile computing are also important for accessibility. However, he acknowledged that "there are no universal designs"; rather, we should design for as broad a range as is both possible and commercially practical.

Vanderheiden’s vision for the future was a pocket-sized "window-to-the-world" all-purpose pda-phone-browser-mailer, with a few buttons, a pencil/stylus, plus speech input/controls, an earphone which could have a hearing aid built in, a camera, etc. – all of which would incorporate "natural accessibility". For example, all buttons are software, hence enlargeable, both all-verbal and all-silent options are available, a text capture and read facility that can also be used as a magnifier, and it knows where you are via a geo-locator. This product, and other ICT products would operate in conjunction with a 3-tier "modality translation" service infrastructure, consisting of local automatic services, network advanced services, and human assisted services, iwth each succeeding layer invoked by the necessity to "try harder" to address the needs of people with functional limitations in the context of a particular task. Modality translation services include text to speech, speech to text, speech to sign, sign to speech, international language translation, language level translation, and image/video description. See the Trace Center's Modality Translation Services Program [6] for information on work in progress to realise this vision; and especially for the handout [7] on envisioned services, illustrated by a good, clear diagram.

Accessibility Issues and Sources Now

While Vanderheiden set out an impressive vision for the future, there is much that can be and to some extent is being done now to make accessibility a reality. Accessibility is now a widely acknowledged issue in the design of ICT for public services. In the USA there are guidelines for ICT accessibility for federal employees, and federal agencies have legal obligations to procure accessible ICT systems and services. As a result, companies supplying systems to federal departments and agencies must design the systems supplied to comply with these requirements [8],[9],[10],[11]. Broader legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which makes it possible for employees to sue their employers of software provided for them to do their jobs is not accessible may be interpreted by American courts to require accessibility of commercial Web sites. These legal requirements, in addition to any ethical and commercial considerations, have made developers increasingly aware of the issues and willing to seek solutions and develop guidelines. For example, see Microsoft’s Accessibility site, and its involvement in two UK accessibility-related initiatives [12],[13]. IBM and Sun are two further examples of substantial ICT companies making public their efforts to address these issues and encouraging others to do the same [14],[15],[16].

In the UK, public bodies – as well as commercial organisations such as Tesco [17] – are addressing accessibility issues. Recently, JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) has initiated the Technology for Disabilities Information Service (TechDis) to provide information and advice on the use of new and existing Communication and Information Technologies (CIT), to enhance access to learning and teaching, research and administration activities for students and staff with disabilities [18]. The Digital Media Access Group at the University of Dundee offers accessibility audit and consultancy services [19]. Also in the UK, the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) campaigns for good Web design on behalf of blind and partially sighted people, and Resource (The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries) has a chapter on Website accessibility in its Library Services for Visually Impaired People: a Manual of Best Practice [20],[21].

Internationally, WC3 (World Wide Web Consortium) pursues its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), supported by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, European Commission's Information Society Technologies Programme, and Canada's Assistive Devices Industry Office, among others [22]. As might be expected from the organisation developing the technologies upon which the Web is founded, the WAI Web pages are rich in resources, covering technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development. Particularly interesting is a listing – with links – of existing tools which can be used by developers or users for improving accessibility. Some of these are tailor-made for accessibility, while others, such as HTML validators, have features which can turned to the purpose [23].

This report has not addressed how we can achieve accessibility in information and education systems and services. However, the author hopes that it has provided a reminder of the importance and potential of doing so, along with pointers to a some good starting points for those developing or responsible for providing inclusive (and therefore of necessity) accessible ICT-based services.


  1. ACM SIGCHI Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction at http://www.acm.org/sigs/sigchi/
  2. The CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Seattle, Washington, 31 March-5 April 2001
  3. Remarks by Bill Gates, CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Seattle, Wash., April 2, 2001
  4. Meet the Microsoft Reader Team at http://www.microsoft.com/reader/meet_team.asp
  5. Trace Center, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison at http://trace.wisc.edu/
  6. Modality Translation Services Program at http://trace.wisc.edu/world/modtrans/
  7. Modality Translation on Next Generation Internet at http://trace.wisc.edu/handouts/modality_translation/
  8. Jason Peckenpaugh, Acquisition council issues guidelines on IT accessibility standards, Government Executive Magazine, 25 January 2001
  9. Federal IT Accessibility Initiative at http://section508.gov/
  10. US Dept. of Justice Section 508 Homepage at http://www.justice.gov/crt/section-508-home-page-0
  11. U.S. Department of Justice, Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA Home Page at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm
  12. Microsoft Accessibility: technology for everyone at http://www.microsoft.com/enable/
  13. Workability in Microsoft in the community UK at http://www.microsoft.com/UK/info/community/workability.htm
  14. IBM Accessibility Center at http://www-3.ibm.com/able/
  15. David Mertz, Tips: Design for accessible Web sites: Making Web sites available to users with disabilities in IBM: developerWorks: Web architecture library [visited June 2001]
  16. Sun Microsystems’ Accessibility Program at http://www.sun.com/tech/access/
  17. About the tesco.com/access grocery service at http://www.tesco.com/access/about.htm
  18. Technology for Disabilities Information Service at http://www.disinhe.ac.uk/project/techdis.asp
  19. Digital Media Access Group at http://www.computing.dundee.ac.uk/projects/dmag/
  20. RNIB Campaign for Good Web Design at http://www.rnib.org.uk/digital/
  21. Library Services for Visually Impaired People: a Manual of Best Practice. Resource. available on the National Library for the Blind website
    [also available in Braille, audio cassette and CD-ROM formats] at http://www.nlbuk.org/bpm/
  22. Evaluation, Repair, and Transformation Tools for Web Content Accessibility in Web Accessibility Initiative at http://www.w3.org/WAI/ER/existingtools.html
  23. AbilityNet at http://www.abilitynet.co.uk/

Further Resources

Bobby in CAST

BOBBY is a tool Web authors can use to assess whether their individual pages are accessible for people with disabilities, and what to do about it if they are not. It is provided by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) a not-for-profit organisation in the USA dedicated to the use of technology to improve opportunities for all people, including those with disabilities. Cast also supplies software that adds spoken voice, visual highlighting, document navigation, or page navigation to any electronic text, including that in Web pages, word processing files, scanned-in text, or typed-in text. The eReader is available in both Macintosh and Windows versions.

Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center (ITTATC)

Established by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA), sponsored by and in association with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to promote accessible ICT through technical assistance, training and information. Firmly within the context of US legislation, this organisation nevertheless provides information and a set of information links with broad applicability.

Karen Soloman, 'Disability Divide', The Industry Standard Magazine, 03 July, 2000

universal usability.org: Pushing Human-computer Interaction Research to Empower every Citizen

The universal usability.org website was created in 2000 by the student fellows and the fellows committee members from the ACM's Conference on Universal Usability (CUU), and covers a broad range of issues, including but not limited to disability-related accessibility.

Accessibility Resources in HCI Bibliography : HCI Webliography

This page of Gary Perlman's HCI Bibliography site now serves as the ACM SIGCAPH (Special Interest Group on Computers and the Physically Handicapped) page of Links to Internet Resources on Accessibility. On 11 June 2001, it contained 111 links to information related to making computers and software accessible to people with disabilities.


The author would like to acknowledge the usefulness in the preparation of this report of information and comments posted to the SIG-IA information architecture mailing list in response to message “Common Benefits of ADA Accessibility Compliance” posted by Diana Ringer of Wells Fargo Bank on 26 April 2001, and which were summarised by her on 3 May 2001. List archives are available at http://www.listquest.com/computers/tier2/computer_misc.htm.

Author Details

Leona Carpenter

Technical Research Officer

Email: l.carpenter@ukoln.ac.uk
URL: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk