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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 9, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 33
JHU Focuses On Online Accessibility

Changes will benefit both disabled and those on old computers

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

According to recent census figures, nearly 50 million people in the United States live with a disability such as a visual, hearing or cognitive impairment. For this group, the everyday act of Internet surfing can be a struggle as a site's construction too often limits what information they can see, hear or use. So, too, can Web site perusal be a challenge for those with aging software and computer equipment.

In an effort to provide equal access to Johns Hopkins online content, the university has recently launched a Web site intended to serve as a clearinghouse of resources for the creation of fully accessible Internet-based systems.

The new Johns Hopkins Web Accessibility site (, which went live in April, offers tools, guidelines, training and other support to help those in the university community fashion Web pages, library resources and distance learning systems that are accessible to individuals with visual impairments, learning disabilities and other conditions that may limit or prevent their access to and use of such services.

Peggy Hayeslip, the university's associate director for disability services and chair of the Web Accessibility Committee, said that a main goal of the new site is to bring the university into compliance with Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, both of which require colleges and universities to make their services, including online and electronic content, accessible to individuals with disabilities and to the public at large.

"We are doing this because we have both a need and a legal obligation to provide accessibility to all users of our Web sites," Hayeslip says. "With this site, we are trying to provide an educational resource to the Johns Hopkins community so they can learn what Web accessibility is, and why it's so important."

Just as ramps and electronically controlled doors provide building access to those with disabilities, Hayeslip says the university's online services need to be reconfigured to include such features as graphic descriptions, captioned videos and content that does not necessarily require the latest version of a Web browser or plug-in to be viewed. Two major components of any accessible Web site, she says, are that it keeps in mind those with low-end computer equipment and that it is compatible with assistive technology, including screen readers that allow the visually impaired to hear information on the pages.

Janine Harig, Web development programmer at SPSBE and a committee member, said the Web Accessibility site's function is to offer basic and free information on how to develop a fully comprehensible Web page, such as how to write code for a keystroke option that will display a text description of an image or animation.

"Nongraphical browsers and screen readers cannot display images to visually impaired users. Therefore, it is important to offer alternative text to describe the contents of all images in your Web pages," she says. "Also, sighted users can ignore navigation links that appear at the top and sides of the pages and go directly to the main content. People who are reading the page with speech synthesis, however, must listen to all the links before getting to the main content. By installing a simple bit of code at the top of the page, you can enable all visitors to skip to the main content."

The site, in addition to defining Web accessibility and pointing to the laws that mandate such practices, has a "What Can I Do?" section that lists resources and checklists to help identify and test for the elements of an accessible Web site. Items on one checklist include providing captions or transcripts of important audio content, offering text-only pages and ensuring that color information can also be conveyed for those with black-and-white monitors.

The 11-member Web Accessibility Committee formed in spring 2002 and since then has hosted a series of workshops that offer personalized training on Web site development. The committee seeks to expand its educational opportunities in the coming year and also plans to host a one-day Web accessibility conference in January 2006. Details concerning the new workshop offerings and upcoming conference will be placed on the site.

For those looking for formal training, the Welch Medical Library offers a course called Accessible Web Design each fall and spring.

Hayeslip says that some of Johns Hopkins' peer institutions, including MIT, Stanford and Dartmouth, are ahead of the curve on Web accessibility best practices and that the university needs to emulate these models and be more proactive as its amount of online content swells.

For questions regarding Web accessibility, contact Hayeslip at


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