Sylvie Duchateau, BrailleNet/WAI (1)
Dominique Archambault, INSERM U483 INOVA, Université du Havre (2)(3)
Dominique Burger, INSERM U483 - INOVA (2)
(1) BrailleNet, 12bis, rue de Picpus - 75012 Paris
(2) INSERM U483 INOVA, Université Pierre et Marie Curie - 9, quai Saint Bernard - 75005 Paris
(3) Université du Havre - 25, rue Philippe Lebon - BP 1123 - 76063 Le Havre Cedex
Within the last decade, the Internet has become a popular communication media. More and more administrations, public services, private companies, associations and individuals use the Internet to exchange information.
For disabled people, the Internet represents an immense potential as it gives access to information they could not obtain before. The blind for instance can read newspapers at the exact time they are published on the Web; people in wheelchair can access administrative forms without having to spend time in poorly accessible buildings. Internet can bring immense advantages to people with disabilities who are at school, or at the university and to those who have a professional activity.
The W3C's whose commitment is to lead the Web to its full potential has launched an initiative to promote a high degree of usability for people with disabilities : The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Since 1996, in coordination with organizations around the world, this initiative is pursuing accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education & outreach, and research & development [WAI].
In France, The BrailleNet Association was set up to explore and develop this potential for the benefit of students with visual impairment, from the primary school to the university [BrailleNet]. The association regroups major French associations of and for blind and partially sighted people, schools, universities, research laboratories and companies involved in the development of Access Technologies. BrailleNet has been developing its activities in complementary directions, including activities in schools, the development of a Virtual Library and the evaluation of Web Sites. Thus, it rapidly became clear that the principles of a Design for All were a key issue in the realisation of this full potential.
BrailleNet got involved in the Web Accessibility Initiative in january 1998 and participated actively in several actions of this initiative. In France, BrailleNet has launched a National Campaign to promote the accessiblity of the Internet.
This paper presents the local situation in France, it describes the tools used for campaigning, then the main action lines are explained. Finally, the first results are discussed and examples of what is done in other european countries are given.
In France, the Internet and the Web have started to get really popular after 1996, but like everywhere they expanded extremely rapidly. Until very recently, there was no regulation concerning the Web and awareness concerning accessibility issues was very limited among the Web community.
Therefore there was a strong need for disseminating information in France about the way to improve the accessibility of Web services for all citizens.
The opportunity for that was given by the European Community who decided to support participation of European organisations to the the WAI project. This resulted in the participation of BrailleNet represented by its co-ordinating organisation, the INSERM, in january 1998
A preliminary study on the accessibility of Web sites in France was conducted with two main objectives:
BrailleNet analysed the accessibility of more than 100 Web sites from different categories such as the press, national and international institutions, education area, entertainment and so on. Two types of criteria were used for this evaluation based on (1) the WAI recommendations and (2) usability assessed by experts equipped with different Access Technologies.
This study showed that only few sites from the public administration and public services were accessible to everybody. Around 21% of the analysed sites were quite accessible, 22% were rather accessible, 38% were poorly accessible and 19% were hardly accessible.
This study confirmed that informing the public opinion, and in particular, the Web site designers and decision-makers about accessibility issues was an urgent necessity.
A leaflet entitled "Le Web plus accessible pour les aveugles et les malvoyants" (in English "Better access to the Web for blind and partially sighted people") has been prepared. It presents the case of the visually impaired users to explain and demonstrate the Design For All principles. This leaflet has been printed (6 pages, 2000 copies) and largely distributed on the occasion of conferences and various meetings to webmasters or journalists. Translations have also been made in English, German and Spanish in co-operation with other national groups. These versions are available on the BrailleNet Web site [Livre Blanc, 99].
More technical documents have been elaborated to present in depth solutions to the most frequent accessibility problems such as image comments, or frame labelling. These documents can also be downloaded from the BrailleNet site (.doc and .rtf formats).
An on-line demonstration has been prepared on a lap-top PC computer. Several examples of poorly accessible Web pages have been selected. For each of them two versions can be shown: before and after it has been repaired according to the WAI guidelines.
A textual browser, BrailleSurf, that filters the HTML code of a page and presents the corresponding information of the screen in Braille, speech or large print is used to illustrate what information is rendered to users who can access textual information only by means of a Braille display or a speech synthesiser [BrailleSurf, 99]. For instance, if no "alt" attribute is used for an image, BrailleSurf displays the file name, like for example "bluebar.gif" or "image1".
The full potential of using style sheets (CSS) is demonstrated by examples: the same HTML sources are presented quite differently on the screen by means of different CSS.
This demonstration can be used :
Accessibility issues were presented and discussed on several occasions at public meetings :
Since October 1998, letters have been sent to many webmasters to inform them about the accessibility problems encountered on their Web sites. Some design improvements were suggested referring to the BrailleNet leaflet and the WAI initiative and guidelines.
Even if the accessibility appeared not to be a high priority for many of them, we had some good results with others, which lead to a co-operation between Braillenet/INSERM and webmasters to improve the accessibility of several sites. For instance, BrailleNet/INSERM co-operated with the webmasters of the French Parliament (www.assemblee-nat.fr/0texte.htm). A similar work was done by the association Cyber-Emploi-Jeunes, a site dedicated to young people looking for a job. This site belongs to the city council of Paris (www.paris-jeunes-emploi.org).
The Accessibility Campaign has been mentionned and positively commented several times in the national (Le Monde, Libération)and local press, and brought on the radio (RFI) or the television (la 5, TF1).
A standard e-mail letter was sent to the 479 Members of Parliament. This letter advocates for better accessibility of the administrative and governmental sites. Four M.P.s belonging to different parties reacted to this letter submitting this problem as a written question to different ministers. Several M.Ps stated their support to our campaign expressing their wish that the government takes measures in favour of the accessiblity of the Internet.
On the occasion of the Internet Days at the French Parliament, BrailleNet had the visit of the President of the French Parliament, Mr Laurent Fabius, and of the City Minister, Mr Claude Bartolone. Both were informed about the Internet Access for blind and partially sighted users as well as other people with disabilities and the problems they are confronted with. They warmly supported our campaign and directed BrailleNet toward the appropriate counsellors. A meeting was held at the interministerial Mission for the Information Technology in the French Administration.
Even more significant was the contact with the service in charge of the French Government information Web site. This service manages three sites of the French Prime Minister: www.sig.premier-ministre.gouv.fr, www.premier-ministre.gouv.fr and www.internet.gouv.fr. As a direct consequence, the WAI Guidelines have been included in the guides provided by the Internet Web site of the French Government. Moreover, an explicit reference to accessibility issues and to the WAI recommendations has been integrated in a national directive concerning the use of the Internet in administrations and governmental services.
After nearly a year of information towards the public opinion, webmasters, and politicians, it is possible to observe the first positive effects of our campaign in France. More and more Web site designers know about the Web Accessibility Initiative and express the wish to receive an evaluation about the accessibility of their sites. Official directives encouraging accessibility are appearing.
Thus the question is raised to settle services functioning on a regular basis to help people solve the accessibility problems on the Web. We take this question very seriously, examining the setting up of a reviewer group in co-operation with other groups among the WAI. This group should be able to bring a cross disability expertise for evaluating and repairing Web sites. We also consider the development of a standardised method including software tools that would speed up the evaluation of sites.
Accessibility is in question not only in France. If we examine the situation in Europe, similar initiatives are undertaken in several countries. Nevertheless, campaigning actions are not conducted at a European level yet. Each country pledges for an accessible Web according to its ressources, cultural habbits, past experience and legislation.
In Portugal, for example, a petition signed by more than 9000 people on the Internet was sent to the Portuguese parliament. The parliament approved the petition at the end of June 1999 and sent it as a recommendation to the Government to write a resolution to improve the access to sites of the administration and public services. This resolution should make mandatory the conception of public and administrative Web sites so that they can be accessible to users with special needs, and in particular users with disabilities or elderly people, in conformance with the WAI recommendations. The resolution of the council of ministers has been approved by the government and a national initiative for citizens with special needs in the information society has been created [Portuguese Initiative]. The evolution in Portugal is unprecedented in Europe.
Another example for an efficient campaign to make public Web sites accessible is the UK. RNIB campaigns actively for the accessibility of public Web sites in the UK. The British government stated in their " modernising government action plan " that by November 1999 a set of guidelines would be produced by the government to design accessible governmental Web sites [UK Initiative].
Thus we can conclude that in France and in several other countries in Europe the general awareness concerning accessibility issues goes improving. Nevertheless, the way toward full accessibility is likely to be still rather long.
The authors are very grateful to Daniel Dardailler, INRIA, and to Judy Brower, MIT, coordinators of the Web Accessibility Initiative, for their reliable and constant help throughout this project.