Industry Canada is using a Web site accessibility testing tool to ensure that the federal government is electronically open to everyone — not just those who can see and hear.

The software, from N.Y.-based UsableNet Inc., automates the process of ensuring Web sites designed using products such

as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver and Microsoft’s FrontPage are properly coded so as to be easily accessed and navigated by people with disabilities. UsableNet recently partnered with Fremont, Calif.-based Nielsen Norman Group (NN/G), which designs human-centred products and services emphasizing the user experience over technology, to create LIFT NN/G Edition, software for usability and accessibility testing and repair that runs on Macromedia Dreamweaver MX and 4.0.

Dan Matko, chief of electronic communications in the communications and marketing branch of Industry Canada, says his department is using the product to create accessible tables in a way that conforms to World Wide Web (W3) Consortium guidelines and to screen-reader requirements.

“”It’s the best tool I’ve found that allows creation of data tables in a way that can be read in relation to rows and columns so a blind person can go through a table and understand where they are and how the tables relate to the columns and the rows,”” says Matko.

Unlike in the U.S., where meeting accessibility standards is now the law, Canada has only Treasury Board guidelines stipulating that all government Web products must be accessible to people with mobility, visual or hearing impairments.

According to Jakob Nielsen, a principle with NN/G, the LIFT product is intended to not only help designers comply with Section 508, the U.S. legislation, but also to improve usability for everyone. There’s a huge similarity between what makes a good Web site for the disabled and what makes a good Web site in general, he notes.

“”In both cases the most important point is simplicity, cutting away all the junk and having a smooth progression through the stages; those are important issues for everyone,”” he says. “”But it’s particularly important if you get slowed down by disability issues. If you have a hard time using a mouse, you don’t want to have to click on so many things, and if you’re blind, you don’t want to have to listen to a screen reader go on and on.””

Governments are particularly guilty of bad design, he says, because they use verbose, bureaucratic language and typically structure Web site options based on their own internal structure, or fill up the site with things users aren’t interested in, such as big, smiling pictures of ministers.

And rather than embrace accessibility as a way to improve usability in general, he says governments “”take a very regulatory approach, which means they don’t think about users as humans, they think of them as legal entities.””

The advantage of the LIFT product is that it teaches the designer about accessibility issues, he says.

“”It has the devious, undermining effect of educating people,”” he says. “”People are not going to buy it for that reason — they’re going to buy it for compliance. But this new software presents the research findings as designers go through their Web site; they get exposed to that thinking and it becomes just-in-time education.””

One of the issues governments have to keep in mind as they design their future Web offerings is that 10 years in the future, more of the population will be online, and many of those will not be the literate, educated population that makes up today’s online universe, he says.

“”The requirements for usability are going to explode.””

Jason Taylor, director of business development, points out that while there are an estimated 30 million physically disabled users worldwide, there are many more with learning impairments such as dyslexia.

Add to that older users coming online who present their own accessiblity issues, and the requirement for easy-to-use sites is enormous, he says.

Organizations that want to try out UsableNet’s accessibility testing tool can get a free, five page report by visiting www.usablenet.com.

Available for both the Windows and Mac platforms, the tool automatically finds usability issues and offers suggestions to fix them.

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