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Statement of Judy Brewer, U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, February 9th

The following written testimony is also available at http://www.house.gov/judiciary/brew0209.htm

Skip to content | Intro | Overview | Berners-Lee Quote | W3C & WAI | Role of Web | Overview of Issues | Complementary Solutions |
Evolution of Web | Three Guidelines | Costs | Progress & Involvement | Conclusion | Endnotes

Statement of Judy Brewer
Before the U.S. House of Representatives
Subcommittee on the Constitution

Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, my name is Judy Brewer[1]. I am director of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) International Program Office[2], at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today on the issue of Web accessibility.


A consensus regarding Web accessibility solutions has developed over the past several years among leaders in Web industry, user representatives, and accessibility researchers. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released two Web accessibility guidelines to date; a third is in an implementation testing period and close to being finalized.

Web accessibility solutions are generally inexpensive and easy to implement. They represent, essentially, good Web design. They are consistent with the evolving nature of the Web and reinforce the Web's ability to work across a multitude of different kinds of devices and purposes.

Web accessibility solutions bring more people onto the Web, stimulating commerce. They support the full range of creative and innovative design that draws users to the Web. There is a strong business case for accessibility, based on disability demographics; and a strong business case based on the benefits for all users that derive from accessibility solutions.

To quote Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web and director of the W3C, "The Web excels as a medium in which accessibility can be addressed. On the Web, a computer can automatically and cost-effectively represent the same information in a variety of ways according to the needs of users. Within the neutral forum of W3C, industry leaders, disability representatives, and others convened to develop accessibility solutions that are reasonable, practical, and effective. Web sites designed using very simple tools naturally tend to be accessible. Even sophisticated sites, designed with major effort, can be kept accessible with only a small proportion of that effort."

There is more work to be done to make the Web more accessible; but we already have a solid foundation of feasible solutions, with broad industry and disability community support.

The World Wide Web Consortium and Web Accessibility

W3C is the international vendor-neutral consortium that develops technologies for the Web. It has nearly 400 Member organizations, primarily Web industry leaders that come together to keep the Web an interoperable and universal information medium.

The W3C has four domains: Web Architecture, User Interface, Technology and Society, and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WAI addresses accessibility on the level of core Web technologies, guidelines development, tools development, education and outreach, and monitoring of research and development. WAI receives support not only from general W3C Member funds but from the US government, European Commission, Government of Canada, and several industry supporters, including IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, and Bell Atlantic.

The Role of the Web in Current Society

The Web is information; it is commerce, education, employment opportunity, and entertainment. It has more resources than the best research library in the world, and more jobs posted than any newspaper. It has resources that foster civic participation and community-building. The Web has rapidly assumed an enormous role in society. In the U.S., it is one of the driving engines of our economy, and has become our daily workplace. The W3C's Recommendations seek to enable all users to benefit from this information medium.

To be relevant in this economy - in today's information society - one needs good access to the Web. People with disabilities, already underemployed and unemployed at some of the highest rates in society, are a user group that needs access to this medium.

At the same time, our economy cannot afford the absence of their participation. With close to 20% of the US population having disabilities, and many of those disabilities affecting access to information - including visual, hearing, physical, and cognitive disabilities, as well as the changing abilities of seniors - companies that forget to design for accessibility inadvertently throw away part of their marketplace.

Companies that fail to design for accessibility also fail to prepare for the future. By 2001, less than 50% of Web access will be from traditional desk-top computers. We are seeing an explosion of access from mobile phones, palm-top devices, the living room TV, and the dashboard of the car - all devices which require many of the same solutions as does accessibility.

An Overview of Web Accessibility Issues

I provide a brief overview here of accessibility issues for people with different kinds of disabilities. Implementation of W3C guidelines provides comprehensive solutions to all of these issues.

People with visual disabilities often use speech output, braille output, or screen magnification to access computers. On the Web, graphics and video that are labeled or described and tables and frames that are properly encoded enable users to access Web content regardless of visual disability. Audio that is captioned similarly becomes accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Software that has keyboard alternatives for mouse-driven commands can be used by people with physical disabilities who might have difficulty using a mouse, as well as by people with visual disabilities. A consistent navigation structure within Web sites can substantially facilitate access for users with visual, cognitive, or physical disabilities.

Complementary Web Accessibility Solutions

Some solutions apply at the level of the information on a Web page, what we call "Web content." For instance, alternative text for images is already required in standard code for Web content. Others solutions apply at the level of Web browsers (such as Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, or Opera) for instance by providing keyboard support for mouse commands and easily-locatable directions on how to use accessibility features that are built into browsers.

Yet other solutions apply at the level of the core Web technologies - the code used in Web pages and browsers. The Web Accessibility Initiative reviews scores of technologies under development at W3C starting from the design stage, to ensure that they provide the support needed for accessibility. W3C has therefore provided a firm technological foundation for accessibility, for instance by ensuring that multimedia presentation languages can encode captions for audio, or that standard micropayment links used for E-Commerce will notify the user of obligated payments even when the user cannot see the screen.

Additional solutions involve improving the way assistive technologies such as screen readers, which produce speech or braille output from Web pages, work with browsers.

People often ask whether there is a magic bullet for Web accessibility - something that every one of the millions of people with different kinds of disabilities could buy, be given, obtain as shareware or obtain via some gateway on the Web - so that they could access everything on the Web without Web designers ever having to think about accessibility. Not only does this unlikely scenario have a much smaller chance of success than the complementary and pragmatic solutions described above, but it would mean that the benefits of accessible design for the Web as a whole would be lost.

Accessibility and the Evolution of Web Technologies

Accessibility fits well within the overall context of Web development. In order to be able to use an information medium, we need common conventions on how to communicate with each other. For the Web, at the most fundamental level one needs three things: a common way to request and send information over the internet - HTTP; a common way to put together documents so that we can all read them - HTML; and a common way of knowing where documents are - URL's.

Consider what happens when people talk together about business, education, or family or community matters. Without common conventions for talking to each other, communication would come to a halt. If one were to frame every comment with an unintelligible prefix, it would distract from whatever substance one might say. Likewise, if this testimony were wholly made up of images and no text, it would be difficult for many to understand, and one would justly feel that the business of this hearing had not been well-served. Yet that is the current state of the Web for many users today.

When communication is impaired in a business environment by failure to use common conventions, commerce is compromised. If communication stops even for only a group of participants in a business environment, two things happen: those participants are excluded from commerce; and the commercial sector loses the benefit of their participation.

The Web started with just three common conventions: HTTP, HTML, and URL's. As the Web has evolved, it has come to include more and more complex ways to control the appearance and encode the information in Web sites. When designers use Web technologies in non-standard ways, it reduces the potential for information to be understood by other parties, and undermines the role of the Web as a universal information medium.

Along with the evolution of more complex Web technologies, new methods of user access are also evolving. Palm-top devices, mobile phones, TV access to the Web - all these Web devices demand flexibility in how information can be accessed. We call this "device independence" of information. In the Web economy of the very near future, Web information will need to be available via any kind of device. Accessibility, because it requires flexibility of information presentation, provides one of the best paths to device-independence.

In order to maximize the potential of the Web's future for our economy and society, accessibility is therefore an inherent part of the common conventions that we use on the Web.

Three Web Accessibility Guidelines

W3C's Web accessibility guidelines describe the common conventions that enable Web accessibility. There are three guidelines: for Web sites; for the software that Web site designers use when they build Web sites, which we call "authoring tools"; and for browsers.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, released in May 1999, explain how to make Web sites accessible enough that people with disabilities can use them with today's technologies. These guidelines were released with the support of industry leaders, as well as support from disability organizations internationally, access research organizations, and governments interested in ensuring that information on the Web is accessible.

The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, released in February 2000, provide guidance to developers of software used to build Web sites, so that software will automatically ensure accessibility of much of the code used on Web sites, and so it can better repair sites that aren't accessible. These guidelines were released also with support from industry leaders and from many organizations internationally.

The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines explain how to make browsers and multimedia players more accessible, and how to make them work better with some of the assistive technology that people with disabilities use. These guidelines entered W3C's Candidate Recommendation status in January, 2000, and are expected to go to the nearly 400 Members of the W3C for final review in February or March of 2000.

Implementations of either of the Web software guidelines (the latter two guidelines) make it easier for Web designers to implement the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. For instance, as browsers develop more capabilities to support accessibility, Web site designers need to do less to make their pages accessible. Likewise, as authoring tools automate more of the production of accessible Web content, site designers will be able to produce accessible Web sites with little effort.

Costs Involved in Implementing Web Accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are prioritized by importance, so that developers can focus on items that are most essential for accessibility to obtain the highest return on investment.

Since much of Web accessibility is a matter of good design, the cost for accessibility on many sites is negligible. Small and simple sites may require only a few words of alternative text for images - which is required for standard code in any case by HTML 4.0, released back in December 1997. On more complex commercial sites, content is frequently generated by scripts from a database, and these sites can be set up to generate accessible information instead of inaccessible information. On sites that have extensive multi-media, captioning of audio and description of video involves minimal production cost compared to production of the multimedia itself, and the size of the captions or descriptions is negligible compared to the size of the audio or video files themselves. Re-designs for accessibility of Web sites can typically be addressed within an organization's periodic site designs, absorbing the cost of retrofitting.

Myths persist about what is required by Web accessibility - for instance, that every Web page should have a text-only version of the page, and that this is burdensome to Web sites designers. Not only is this not true - the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines strongly discourage the use of text-only pages for accessibility, for a number of reasons - but were it in fact a recommendation, it would be trivial to accomplish with many of today's authoring tools which can generate customized presentations of content from the same database.

Progress and Involvement to Date

We have seen strong interest and appreciation for WAI's work from a large number of companies. Involvement and implementation have followed from a smaller number of organizations.

The single most important need right now is for implementations of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. As of the recent release of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, there were public commitments from several authoring tool developers to make their products support the guidelines, and another half-dozen developers have indicated confidentially that they are already working on implementations of these guidelines. But there are hundreds of different tools used to generate content for the Web. If a majority of these tools facilitated the creation of accessible content as described by the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, there would very quickly be an enormous increase in the amount of accessible content on the Web.

There are several reasons that companies choose to get involved in Web accessibility. Two factors that are frequently mentioned include the demographics of the disability marketplace, and the carry-over benefits from accessible design, such as with the greater server efficiency and maintainability of sites which use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to control the appearance of sites.

But in an industry with intense competition, for many companies these factors can be insufficient to lead to a critical mass of involvement in or implementation of Web accessibility. The presence of several regulatory processes in the background appears to have stimulated parties to come to the table who have not previously been involved in accessibility, and enabled other parties already working on accessibility within companies to leverage more attention and implementation commitments from product divisions that they work with.


Encouragement of involvement and implementation of Web accessibility solutions would contribute to progress on Web accessibility. In an area where the pace of technology is so rapid, lost ground is not easily made up.

This statement has described the nature of Web accessibility issues; approaches to developing accessibility solutions; and the status of involvement and implementation by industry. We need a continuation of the good work of the broad forum of organizations involved in developing Web solutions, so that the Web can move forward as a technology that serves all.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today.


[1] Judy Brewer is Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative International Program Office, of the World Wide Web Consortium. Biographical information is available at <http://www.w3.org/People/Brewer>. Required disclosure statement: "I coordinate a project on behalf of the W3C, an international consortium of industry, academe and user organizations which develops Web standards. The W3C is in part hosted by MIT, primarily funded by member organizations, and among its other activities it receives funding from multiple sources to develop and promote solutions to accessibility issues on the Web. That funding for work on Web accessibility includes approximately $350,000 per year in funds from the US National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. My statements for the purposes of this hearing do not represent the opinion of those agencies, nor of the host institution, MIT."

[2] Information on W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative is available at <http://www.w3.org/WAI>, including links to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines <http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG>, the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines <http://www.w3.org/TR/ATAG> and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines <http://www.w3.org/TR/UAAG>.

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