Olympic Failure: A Case for Making the Web Accessible

Tom Worthington FACS

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra

For Oxford University Computing Laboratory, Oxford, UK,20 October 2000


  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. A Case for Making the Web Accessible
  4. Olympic Web Case: Maguire V SOCOG
  5. Implications
  6. References
  7. Bibliography

  8. Addendum


In August 2000 the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games was found to have engaged in unlawful conduct by providing a web site which was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission ordered the web site be made accessible by the start of the Sydney Olympics. The details of the case and its global implications for government policy and commercial practice on the Internet is examined by one of the expert witnesses who gave evidence to the commission. The wider issue of the public interest in Internet, web and IT development is examined. An analogy with town planning, inspired by the Lake at Blenheim Palace (near Oxford), is explored.


Lake at Blenheim Palace

The Roman writer Cicero termed what we would call the cultural landscape a second nature (alteram naturam). This was a landscape of bridges, roads, harbours, fields - in short, all the elements which men and women introduce into the physical world to make it more habitable, to make it serve their purposes. (Hunt 1992)

On a bleak April day in 1994, I visited Blenheim Palace, a few kilometres from here, outside Oxford. I was on a holiday to the UK. Roger Clarke had e-mailed me the draft of a paper we were writing about how the Internet could be used in business and by the general community. We were struggling over how to explain these new concepts to politicians, business and the general public. I was feeling a bit far from my home in Canberra (Australia's capital) and wondering if this Internet thing would ever be relevant to people's daily lives or it was just a technology fantasy by a few computer people.

The picturesque grounds of Blenheim Palace are dominated by an artificial lake designed by the English landscape architect "Capability" Brown. As I stood by the bridge across the lake looking at a monument in the distance, I had the feeling I had been there before. In that moment I was transported back to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, with Australia's Parliament House in the distance. I remembered that Canberra was designed by the landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin (who the lake was named after) in a tradition of town planning descended in part from Capability Brown.

What I was looking at was not a natural scene, but water, roads and fields designed to be pleasing to the eye, just as Canberra had been designed to be both efficient as a city and ascetically pleasing. Why not do this with the Internet? Build an on-line system for the community which was not only technically efficient but a civilised place to be? Building the "Information Superhighway" as the Internet was then clumsily described, could be explained in terms of road building and town planning: an activity important to the whole community involving engineering and social issues.

We called our paper "Vision for a Networked Nation" and some of what was in it was adopted by the Australian Government (or at least they adopted the title). With the subsequent popularity of the Internet much of the discussion of social issues has been lost. In the last two years we have seen a virtual gold rush, with short term greed staking out as much of the Internet's common land for short term speculative development. Much of this investment has been wasted, due to a lack of thought as to what people might actually be able to use. Now the web-chaos has subsided, I suggest that IT professionals, including researchers, need to step in and play their part in building a long term, sustainable public infrastructure, which will be socially useful, affordable and perhaps even profitable. One aspect of that is to make web technology which is accessible to the broader community.

A Case for Making the Web Accessible

IT professionals have an obligation to use their skills for the benefit of the whole community. IT researchers will find interesting intellectual challenges in addressing accessibility issues, insights for better application interfaces and more efficient application designs. Commercial IT developers will find a larger market by designing for more of the community and possibly lower hardware and network costs through more efficient design. In particular accessibility features can make handheld wireless web devices more practical. If not convinced by these arguments, then IT professionals who fail to address accessibility issues need to consider the risk of charges of unethical conduct and possible legal action against them for discrimination.

Web accessibility guidelines have been developed to assist designers to make web sites which are accessible to the greatest range of users of the Internet. These guidelines give recommendations as to which options are easiest for readers to use. The most respected guidelines are those from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C 1999):

For those unfamiliar with accessibility issues pertaining to Web page design, consider that many users may be operating in contexts very different from your own:

Content developers must consider these different situations during page design. While there are several situations to consider, each accessible design choice generally benefits several disability groups at once and the Web community as a whole. For example, by using style sheets to control font styles and eliminating the FONT element, HTML authors will have more control over their pages, make those pages more accessible to people with low vision, and by sharing the style sheets, will often shorten page download times for all users. (W3c 1999)

There are many misconceptions about accessibility and the web. Many of these are common amongst IT researchers and professionals and are holding up work on building better web applications for everyone, not just the disabled.

Common misconceptions with accessibility and the web:

How can Blind People Read Web Pages?

There is a common misconception that accessibility issues are exclusively to do with a small section of the community: the blind. As the W3C guidelines make clear, blindness is only one disability which can be addressed. In a recent study of web sites the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission pointed out that that a group with accessibility problems is the aged (HREOC 2000b). This is a group which we all hope to join one day, which is growing in size and in political and economic power.

Isn't the Web Inherently a Visual Medium?

The Internet and the web were (and mostly still are) based on printable text, a format relatively friendly to many with disabilities. Those with some vision can use large fonts to read text on screen. Synthetic voice software can be used to read out the text on the screen. For braille readers a refreshable Braille display, which converts the text to a row of raised dots on a electromechanical device can be used.

Isn't It Too Late to Add Accessibility Features to the Web?

There are already accessibility features built into the web. The simplest example is alternative text for images. The HTML image command (IMG) includes an optional alternate text (ALT) tag. This allows a text caption to be entered, which is displayed when the image can not be. This option is available in just about every web authoring tool and is supported by just about every web browser. It is just a matter of the web author typing in the captions when adding images.

Won't it Cost A lot?

Accessibility involves some design decisions and may limit some design decisions. But is such items as captions for images are planned for at design time they will not add a alrge amount to a design. Some visually appealing, but less than useful web gimmicks may be avoided by using an accessible design. Also an accessible design may save on hardware or network costs.

Why Do All This for a Few People?

IT professionals who design user interfaces have built up a body of experience in how to make an application easy to use. Much of that experience has been forgotten by, or is unknown to, those now designing web sites. While applying the discipline of accessible web site design we can also relearn the lessons of good application design for all users.

Hasn't XML Fixed All This?

The Extensible Markup Language (XML) from the World Wide Web Consortium is a meta-language - a language for describing languages. One example of one use of XML is for XHTML, which provides a more carefully formatted implementation of HTML  using the XML syntax (Worthington 2000c). XHTML is designed to allow a bridge between the existing web and new features. However XHTML's features are of little use if not supported by web authoring tools and web browsers, or if web authors don't bother to use them.

There is no law against it!

In Australia, and many other countries, it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled people. In August 2000 the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games was found to have engaged in unlawful conduct by providing a web site which was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind.

Olympic Web Case: Maguire V SOCOG

Previous IT Discrimination Case

The Olympic web case was not the first time that issues of discrimination involving information technology had been considered in Australia. As detailed in Michael Bourk's book Universal Service? - Telecommunications Policy In Australia and People with Disabilities (2000) in 1995 a member of the Australian Deaf community, and a peak disability group launched a successful case against an Australian telecommunications company in an inquiry overseen by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC). It was alleged that the company unfairly discriminated against him by refusing to supply a teletypewriter (TTY) on the same basis that the corporation supplied a standard telephone to able-bodied persons.

As a result of the decision, seventeen thousand members of the Deaf community no longer had to pay approximately seven hundred dollars to access a telephone service. Furthermore the company actively engaged in understanding disability issues and changing its corporate culture by instituting a Disability Plan of Action. Also the Minister for Communications specifically wrote TTY provisions into the Telecommunications Act 1997.

It would be a fruitful area for research to look at the similarities and differences between this case and the Olympic case.

The Complaint Against SOCOG

On 7 June 1999 a complaint was made to HREOC, by a blind person that he was unlawfully discriminated against by SOCOG in three respects: the failure to provide braille copies of the information required to place orders for Olympic Games tickets; the failure to provide braille copies of the Olympic Games souvenir programme; and the failure to provide a web site which was accessible to the complainant. The Ticket Book component of the complaint was dealt with on 30 September 1999 and Souvenir programme, 27 March 2000. A decision on the web accessibility was delivered 24 August 2000 (HREOC 2000), with SOCOG found to have engaged in unlawful conduct by providing a web site which was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind and the web site ordered to be made accessible by the start of the Sydney Olympics.

The contractor who built the web site for SOCOG was IBM. During the case, IBM and SOCOG refused to supply technical details about the web site to the complainants experts claiming the information was “highly commercially sensitive information within the knowledge of SOCOG and its contractor” (HREOC 2000):

As this information was not supplied, it was necessary to examine the information which was available on the then current web site to evaluate the design and estimate the cost and time needed to make the site accessible. This was done by myself in Australia and by Jutta Treviranus, manager of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto and chair of the W3C Authoring Tool Guidelines Working Group, as expert witnesses for the complainant. My witness statement to the Commission is available online, (Worthington 2000a) as is demonstration showing two options for implementing guidelines in the menu of sports (Worthington 2000b).

The complainant requested that the HREOC make the following orders or declarations:

  1. That SOCOG include ALT text on all images and image map links on the website;

  2. That SOCOG ensure access from the Schedule page to the Index of Sports; and

  3. That SOCOG ensure access to the Results Tables on the web site during the Olympic Games. (HREOC 2000)

Excerpts from My Statement

8. Website accessibility guidelines have been developed to assist website designers to make websites which are accessible to the greatest range of users of the internet. These guidelines give recommendations as to which options are easiest for readers to use. The following website accessibility guidelines are relevant to this complaint;

  1. W3C Recommendation Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, 5-May-1999 at (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505).

  2. AusInfo Guidelines at http://www.ausinfo.gov.au/guidelines/index.html.

  3. IBM's Web Accessibility Guidelines and Checklist at http://www-3.ibm.com/able/accessweb.html.

11. I used “Bobby” to search the SOCOG website for useability issues. Bobby is an automated tool for testing implementation of web usability guidelines, as well as to formal web syntax. It allows a quick and easy test of the pages.

12. Bobby was created by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). Founded in 1984, CAST is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to expand opportunities for people with disabilities through innovative uses of computer technology. The home page for "Bobby" http://www.cast.org/bobby. a web-based tool that analyses web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities...

Inspection of the SOCOG Website

22. On 27 April 2000 I inspected the following pages:

23. The web pages were displayed using Internet Explorer (Version 5.0 for Windows 95), with image display switched off (to simulate use by a blind person). The display of the web pages was inspected for useability and then an examination of the HTML source code made. HTML source code is the textural instructions used to indicate what is displayed on a web page. As an example the instruction <i> indicates that what follows should be displayed in italics and <b> indicates bold text.

24. It should be noted that a more detailed analysis would be required to more formally rate the site against established useability guides, such as the HREOC Recommended Guidelines, which cite the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Problems found using the “Bobby” useability test tool

25. On 27 April 2000 I conducted a test on the home page of the SOCOG website at Home page: http://www.olympics.com/eng/index.html/eng/home.html using the "Bobby" useability test tool at http://www.cast.org/bobby...

26. When the main frame “home.html” was submitted separately to Bobby it failed due to three images with no ALT text and a request for tables to be checked for tables headers for the table rows and columns...

29. The "Sports home page" http://www.olympics.com/eng/sports/home.html includes a confusing menu system, with "a choose a sport" button and a list of sports which are on the bottom of the screen in one large image map (where they would only be seen by scrolling down). This could be supplemented (or replaced) by a simple text list.

30. After an inspection of the SOCOG Web Site I found that it is inaccessible to Mr. Maguire and other blind people using similar software for the following fundamental reasons:

  1. ALT text is not included on small number images of the web site. As an example the graphic at the top of the page which links to “home” and the button bar (with “feedback”, “about” and “privacy”) have no text captions. The visually impaired user would be unable to discern what these items were for, due to the lack of a readable label.

  2. Tables are not laid out so as to be read a linear way. Tables contain multiple lines of wrapped text, which are read across the rows, as for example by a Braille reader, and so are not intelligible. As an example the table in the "What's on - December 1999" page http://www.olympics.com/eng/schedule/Event_1299.html has three columns of text. The first column has the dates broken across three lines: "4 Dec to 5 Dec". This would be read by a Braille reader as three separate items starting three lines of the table, not as one phrase.

  3. The "Sports home page" http://www.olympics.com/eng/sports/home.html has a list of sports in one large image map, which is unreadable by non-text readers.

Problems found and compliance with Web Accessibility Guidelines

i. W3C Recommendation Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, 5-May-1999 at (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505).

From: Guideline 1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content. Checkpoints (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505/#gl-provide-equivalents):

“1.1 Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content). This includes: images, graphical representations of text (including symbols), image map regions, animations (e.g., animated GIFs), applets and programmatic objects, ascii art, frames, scripts, images used as list bullets, spacers, graphical buttons, sounds (played with or without user interaction), stand-alone audio files, audio tracks of video, and video. [Priority 1]”

Guideline 5. Create tables that transform gracefully. (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505/#gl-table-markup)

“5.1 For data tables, identify row and column headers. [Priority 1] For example, in HTML, use TD to identify data cells and TH to identify headers.

5.3 Do not use tables for layout unless the table makes sense when linearized. Otherwise, if the table does not make sense, provide an alternative equivalent (which may be a ). [Priority 2]“

From: Guideline 1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content. Checkpoints (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505/#gl-provide-equivalents):

Checkpoints:1.1 Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element ...

For image maps, either use the “alt” attribute with AREA, or use the MAP element with A elements (and other text) as content. “

ii. AusInfo Guidelines at http://www.ausinfo.gov.au/guidelines/index.html. Equal access and the web: some issues (http://www.ausinfo.gov.au/guidelines/standard01.html#

“Availability of information and services in electronic form via the web has the potential to provide equal access for people with a disability; and to provide access more broadly, more cheaply and more quickly than is otherwise possible using other formats...

Current text readers and Braille output devices are not able to deal with information or links presented only in graphics or photographic format. “

iii. IBM’s Web Accessibility Guidelines and Checklist at http://www-3.ibm.com/able/accessweb.html.

Version 2.1 January 11, 2000 (http://www-3.ibm.com/able/accessweb.html#checklist)


1: Images and animations. Use the alt=”text” attribute to provide text equivalents for visuals. Use alt=”” for visuals that do not convey important information or convey redundant information.

2: Image Maps. Use client-side image maps to provide accessible text for image map hot spots. If you use server-side maps, provide equivalent text links.


9. Tables. For tabular data, use the CAPTION element and/or the summary attribute. For tables with complex row and column headers, use the headers attribute on cells.”

Changes required to make the site accessible to Mr. Maguire

31. In my opinion the SOCOG website can be made accessible to Mr. Maguire by making the following changes.

  1. Add ALT text to the images where it is not already included. Supply a text based menu as an alternative to image maps.

  2. Lay out tables so as to be readable in a linear way (or provide a linear alternative to tables). Identify headers for the table rows and columns to aid reading.

  3. Supplement (or replace) large image map list of sports on the “Sports home page” http://www.olympics.com/eng/sports/home.html with a simple menu.

Information required to estimate the cost of the website

32. To make an exact costing of all the changes required I need to know the exact size of the website. Specifically I need the following information from SOCOG;

  1. the number of templates to be used for the SOCOG website.

  2. details of the tools used to generate the pages of the SOCOG website.

as the results tables are not yet on the website I also require a sample page, in electronic format, from the proposed results table on the SOCOG website and the number of templates for the results tables.

33. I have not received this information at the time of signing this statement. As a result I have made a number of assumptions, based on the pages which were examined.

Assumptions made to cost the website

34. The number of templates used on the website. An Alta Vista web search for pages hosted at “www.olympics.com” found 204 web pages. Alta Vista is the web search engine linked from the Olympic web site and so presumably the one with the most comprehensive set of links. Based on my experience of designing web sites, I have assumed that these pages consist of 10 subsidiary pages for each template, giving an estimate of approximately 21 general templates.

35. I have assumed that the tools used to design the web site have provision for useability options (such as the inclusion of “ALT”) tags and tools for searching for particular structures (such as tables) which need to be checked. Therefore no additional cost is included for the cost of tools to fix the website.

36. The number of results templates. The “Organising the Games - Overview of the Sydney 2000 Games” http://www.olympics.com/eng/about/programs/overview.html Fact sheet gives the estimate of “28 sports, will compete in some 300 events”. To arrive at this figure I took the number of events and divided it by the number of sports.

37. As a result of the assumptions I have made the number of the templates on the website are likely to be somewhere in the following range;

Type of template
No Templates
21 general web templates
28 sports web page templates
28 sports web page templates, each with 11 event result templates

Estimate of the total number of templates


My estimate of the time required and cost estimate for the website

38. Given the size of the site, I estimate that it would take approximately 3.1 weeks for a competent developer to make these changes. I have assumed that 1 day is 7 hours. This estimate is based on the following individual time estimates:

  1. i. Survey web site and assess the extent of requirements for changes as identified in paragraph 29: 4 days

  2. Design, document and test changes for each type of template: 2 days

  3. Carry out changes for each template: 10 minutes per template x 357 templates = 3570 minutes 8.5 days

  4. Test changes to templates: 1 day.

  5. Total time required:

Change templates

15.5 days


39. I would estimate the cost of the changes on the basis of my usual consultant’s rate per day, $1,900.00. The cost estimate is therefore as follows;

15.5 days x $1,900 per day $29,450.00

The Statutory Provisions

The case for the complainant was made under section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA 1992):

24  Goods, services and facilities

                  (1)   It is unlawful for a person who, whether for payment or not, provides goods or services, or makes facilities available, to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s disability or a disability of any of that other person’s associates:

                             (a)   by refusing to provide the other person with those goods or services or to make those facilities available to the other person; or

                             (b)   in the terms or conditions on which the first-mentioned person provides the other person with those goods or services or makes those facilities available to the other person; or

                             (c)   in the manner in which the first-mentioned person provides the other person with those goods or services or makes those facilities available to the other person.

                  (2)   This section does not render it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the ground of the person’s disability if the provision of the goods or services, or making facilities available, would impose unjustifiable hardship on the person who provides the goods or services or makes the facilities available.


The decision was delivered 24 August 2000, with SOCOG found to have engaged in unlawful conduct by providing a web site which was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind and the web site ordered to be made accessible by the start of the Sydney Olympics(HREOC 2000):

3.1         Discrimination

In the Commission’s view, the respondent has discriminated against the complainant in breach of section 24 of the DDA in that the web site does not include ALT text on all images and image maps links, the Index to Sports cannot be accessed from the Schedule page and the Results Tables provided during the Games on the web site will remain inaccessible...

The respondent in constructing its web site (and its Ticket Book) was intending to offer a service to the public. In the case of the web site that service consisted in the provision of a large body of information. By the form and content of its web site the respondent sought to make the information available. Because of the manner in which that information was made available, it could be accessed by a sighted person. Because of the manner which that information was made available it could not be accessed by a blind person because of his or her disability. This meant that, in respect of the same information, the respondent, in the manner in which it used its computer technology to service the needs of the public to have access to that information, made it available to sighted persons, but it made it unavailable or only partly available to a blind person because of the latter’s disability. It follows that, because of his or her disability, the blind person was treated less favourably by the respondent than the sighted person.

That in my view constitutes direct discrimination within the meaning of section 5 of the DDA...

3.2         Unjustifiable hardship

In short the respondent claims that the difficulty in providing a separately hosted site, its cost and the risks which would be offered to the existing developed site are such as to impose on the respondent a level of hardship which cannot be justified.

The evidence called for the complainant can be summarised and contrasted with that of the respondent:

·               The number of templates is significantly less than 1295 and the reformatting of the templates will take considerably less than the 2 hours for each alleged by the respondent. A more realistic estimate for the minor changes required is 10 minutes each; nor is there the need for unique manually generated formats.

·               No new infrastructure will be required because it is allegedly in place.

·               A team of one experienced developer with a group of 5-10 assistants could provide an accessible site to Level A compliance in 4 weeks.

·               Wrapping in each cell can be met by using a simple device namely the inclusion of an invisible end of cell character which would indicate to a blind person the end of the text in each cell.

·               The cost of making the site accessible is a modest amount.

·               The number of templates has been estimated at 357 for 28 sports. Additional templates would be required for 37. Because of the failure of respondent to supply the information requested by letter on 31 March 2000 the number of templates has been estimated...

In the view of the Commission, the respondent cannot avoid liability for its breach of section 24 of the DDA by its claim of unjustifiable hardship.

3.3         General

The only remaining matter is that raised by the respondent namely that any discriminatory conduct in respect of the web site was not that of the respondent but that of its contractor IBM and there has been no complaint against IBM...

In the Commission’s view there is no sound basis for the respondent’s attempt to avoid an adverse finding against it. The fact that it engaged a consultancy to assist it in furnishing information does not avoid the fact that it was the respondent’s site, the information was within its control, it was its information which it seeks to distribute via its site. No evidence was given by the respondent which contests those issues of fact.


Accordingly, the complaint is substantiated and it is proper for the Commission to make the following determination pursuant to s.103(1) of the DDA:

1.             A declaration that the respondent has engaged in conduct that is unlawful under section 24 of the DDA in that it has provided for the use of the complainant a web site which because of his blindness is to a significant extent inaccessible.

2.             A declaration that the respondent do all that is necessary to render its web site accessible to the complainant by 15 September 2000 by:

(i)             including ALT text on all images and image map links on its web site;

(ii)           providing access to the Index of Sports from the Schedule page; and

(iii)          providing access to the Results Tables to be used on the web site during the Sydney Olympic Games.

If the respondent does not comply with the above declaration either by the commencement of the Games or in the course thereof it is apparent that the complainant will suffer loss and damage for which compensation might be assessed and awarded. Accordingly, in the event of non compliance or only partial compliance by the respondent, the complainant should have the opportunity of reopening the question of the appropriate relief which the Commission should order. Therefore, having made the above determination, I adjourn this matter in case it is necessary for the complainant to consider whether compensation should be ordered and I grant the complainant leave to approach the Commission to have the matter relisted to consider this issue were that necessary.

Implications for government policy and commercial practice on the Internet

Obligations to Make the Web Accessible

While the SOCOG decision described above may appear a strong indication that Australian organisation must make the web accessible, the decision is limited in several respects. SOCOG later chose not to accept the Commission's decision and it will be necessary for the complainant to approach the Commission to have the matter relisted to consider compensation. It should be noted that the complaint was against SOCOG, not its contractor IBM and there has been no complaint against IBM. No web designers from IBM or SOCOG gave evidence to the commission as to who, how or why the web site was designed the way it was.

Australian governments have decided to adopt the W3C Guidelines, with the Commonwealth Government requiring all agency web sites to pass accessibility tests by 1 December 2000. However, the policy doe not state what tests are to be complied with, nor the level of compliance required. There are three conformance levels in the W3C guidelines (easiest to hardest): A, AA and AAA.

The Internet Industry Association issued a statement warning businesses that the SOGOC decision puts them on notice:

IIA executive director, Peter Coroneos said that the SOCOG decision confirmed the view that the Disability Discrimination Act applied to the online provision of goods, services or facilities to the public in Australia, whether or not for payment. "Disability access is therefore a serious consideration for any Australian business wanting to establish a presence on the Net. Sites which targetted customers overseas might also be liable under equivalent legislation in the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere, " he said.

However, there is little indication that Australian corporations are taking the threat of legal action seriously.

Opportunities for research

IT researchers will find interesting intellectual challenges in addressing accessibility issues, insights for better application interfaces and more efficient application designs. This may have interesting and commercially valuable spinoffs. Accessibility features can be used to make hand held and wireless web devices more practical, by improving the user interface and lowering bandwidth requirements.

Consider someone standing in the family kitchen at breakfast time using a small screen web appliance, with a wireless Internet connection. They may be half asleep and have only a few moments to enter a transaction or find some information while being distracted by the chaos of a family at breakfast time.

Consider a soldier using a hand held web appliance in a tank on a battlefield. They may be wearing goggles and protective gloves, making it difficult to see a small ruggedised screen and operate a keyboard. The combat radio network the device is connected to will have only limited bandwidth.

The same accessibility features which would aid someone with a permanent disability, could also help these people with temporary environmental disabilities.

Commercial spinoffs for wireless and handheld computing

Wireless handheld Internet devices are currently seen as the new hot area for development of computing. However, there are problems with current approaches. The telecommunications carriers who have invested billions of dollars in next generation high bandwidth licences have wasted their money, as have WAP handset makers. The spinoffs from accessibility research will allow for handheld devices smarter than WAP phones which can provide a good service using the existing mobile phone bandwidth.

Accessible Web, not WAP as Mainstream Wireless Technology

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) as currently conceived is unlikely to become the mainstream technology for wireless Internet applications. WAP is being implemented as an add-on for mobile phones, when what is needed is a hand held web device with add-on phone functions.

Current WAP devices have tiny monochrome text-only screens, limited processing capacity and intermittent Internet access. Just as the Iridium satellite phone system was a commercial failure due to being a technology looking for a use, WAP may fail by being a product with a few niche applications. Once the novelty of the tiny WAP device wears off, its limitations will become apparent.

Mainstream Internet applications require more capable hand held web terminals with larger screens, more processing capacity and continuous Internet access. These can be pocket size devices, similar to today's PDAs, and no much bigger than a mobile telephone. However, slightly larger devices, the size of a paperback book), should prove more useful.

These devices don't need high speed Internet connections. What is more important is a continuous connection, allowing data to be downloaded as required. Technologies, such as GPRS, should allow this access, while also providing the option of mobile phone functions.

Rather than requiring all web sites to be re-implemented for WAP, hand held devices could use standard web pages which have accessibility features implemented. The same accessible design features which make web pages suitable for the disabled, also make them suitable for small screens and lower speed wireless Internet connection.

Research on tools which automatically optimise the design of a web site for a range of display devices is needed. These tools could render XML content in the format most suitable for the device and user. In some cases this could be done by the server, by an intermediate gateway or in the client device. It may also be possible to reformat existing web pages to add accessibility features with a gateway.

Low Bandwidth and Peak Web Use

Accessible web design can also be used to lower equipment and network cost and provide access on low bandwidth links. On most web pages the text provides the essential information, but the images take most of the download time. Many web browsers are designed to display the text of the web page as soon as possible, with images being added as they arrive. If ALT text is available on images and the web page is carefully designed, it will be useable as soon as the text of the web page has arrived. The user need not wait for the images to be downloaded, but can use the text only rendering of the page.

On a low speed link or on a heavily loaded web site, an accessible design can make the difference between something useable or unusable. This may be a lower cost alternative to installing additional server and network capacity to deal with occasional peak demand periods.

As a an example, on the morning of 19 September I attempted to display a page of results from the SOCOG Olympic web site. The site was obviously heavily loaded, due to the games, however I was using what should have been a good connection at IBM's "Surf Shack" at one of the Olympic venues. The web browser reported as each image for the page of results was loaded. However, after five minutes there was still a blank screen displayed, as all the images had not yet been loaded.

Had IBM designed the web page better and implemented accessibility guidelines, the text would have come up after a few seconds and the web site would be usable while images were still loading. I would have then been able to read the results, without having to wait for all the graphics to download. As well as a better experience for the user, this would have allowed the site to cater for a larger volume of users.

Benefits for the wider community

As the Internet changes from an academic research tool to a mainstream community communications tool, the reliability and availably of the network needs to be considered. The voice telephone network has proven to be very reliable and is now used for essential, safety critical communications. If the Internet and the web are to be used for such communication, the effects of peak loads on the system need to be considered. One way to deal with such loads is to have the system degrade gracefully. It may be possible to use accessibility features to do this, with high bandwidth features dropped automatically when the system is heavily loaded and relying on the lower bandwidth features.

Risks in inaction for IT professionals and organisations

In making a case for IT professionals to address accessibility issues, I have emphasised the interesting intellectual challenges for researchers and potential commercial spinoffs. However, if not convinced by these arguments, then IT professionals need to remember they risk charges of unethical conduct and they and their clients risk legal action for discrimination.




Thanks to Gervase Markham , University College, Oxford for suggestions on XHTML.


Having arrived in Oxford in 1994 and seen the hallowed halls I had to check the e-mail. Unfortunately it was just before Easter. Most University people were on holiday, so there was not anyone to visit. I had not warned anyone I was coming so I just called the computer centre. The help desk issued me with a temporary user-id, after I showed some identification. I sat next to the help desk for an hour and checked my mail. The system seemed a bit slow, but that may have been because my mailbox was on the other side of the world. It was just like being at home, in a computer centre, surrounded by computer people. (Worthington 1999)

After writing that about my travels (and later in a book), I received this message:

Date: Mon, 11 Jul 1994 09:39:31 +0100
From: xxxx@xxx.ox.ac.uk (Alex Reid)
To: tomw@xxxx.adfa.oz.au
Subject: Visit to OUCS

Dear Tom Worthington,

I notice from a recent posting to aus.org.acs that you recently visited OUCS. I'm sorry you didn't make yourself known to me. Perhaps you were afraid I might foil your attempts to gain access to your email!? :-)

Regards, Alex.

Mr T Alex Reid, Director Oxford Uni Computing Services

It has taken four years, but I have finally made myself known to Mr Reid. ;-)

About the speaker:

Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University. He is an independent electronic business consultant and author of the book Net Traveller. The first Web Master for the Australian Department of Defence, in 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. Tom is a director and past President of the Australian Computer Society and a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a consultant to the Australian Government's Business Entry Point and teaching in the ANU's new e-commerce unit.


Since the preparation of this presentation:

Further Information


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    Copyright © Tom Worthington 2000.