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    EDUCATION OUTREACH, & TRAINING | Contents | Next

    Trace Center: Gracefully Pursuing Universal Access

    PROJECT LEADER
    Gregg Vanderheiden
    Trace Center, University of Wisconsin

    PARTICIPANT
    Al Gilman, Trace Center Liaison

    T he glory days of the standard desktop computer system could be numbered. With lightning-quick speed new discovery environments are emerging, from eBooks to ImmersaDesks. Each innovation opens doors for the user, but also places challenging demands on the developer. For the workstation will never disappear--it will instead become one more option--and programs, be they for research, education, or entertainment, will need to operate consistently on all platforms. The Trace Center, as a corollary to their work on disability access, is confronting this problem and has coined a phrase to describe their design philosophy: Transform Gracefully.

    "Not only are the computer architectures changing rapidly, the languages are changing, too," says Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "So the issue isn't just the equipment on which something is displayed, it's also the way in which the content is described in its code."

    On May 5, 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)--an organization concerned with universal access to Internet-based information--released new accessibility guidelines developed with the assistance of the Trace Center. "The guidelines account for the reality of the Web today," Vanderheiden says. "For example, the use of embedded tables for formatting. Previous access technologies couldn't read information contained in these types of tables, but now new developments are making this possible. Consequently, the guidelines have been updated, from 'don't use tables' to 'put these tags in your tables and switch to style sheets as soon as possible.' "

    UNIVERSAL DESIGN AND DISABILITY ACCESS

    TRANSFORM GRACEFULLY

    TRACE AND OUTREACH

    UNIVERSAL DESIGN AND DISABILITY ACCESS

    The Trace Center began with a mission to make technology accessible to all individuals. "Even if you are blind, have low vision, are deaf-blind, or have other physical or cognitive disabilities, you should still be able to use technology to access the information and services available to other users," says Al Gilman, NPACI's Trace Center liaison and a W3C working group member.

    Subsequently the center has been working with those who are developing access-testing tools, including one called Bobby that is available for free download. "Bobby is the community standard," Gilman says. "It has recently been carefully revised to account for the new W3C guidelines. This makes Bobby more robust and helps make the guidelines easier to implement."

    ?"We're also developing repair tools that fix problems impeding access," Vanderheiden says. "One version will work with Bobby, making it easier to spot and fix problems on the spot. Another will work with media like QuickTime, AVI files, SMIL, and SAMI to make it easy to synchronize captions and descriptions."

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    TRANSFORM GRACEFULLY

    It's a fortunate coincidence that the same code changes that enable assistive devices to read and interpret Web content also benefit users working on non-traditional platforms or under restrictive conditions.

    "Disability access is a good stress test for flexibility and adaptability," Vanderheiden says. "A blind user is similar to someone who can't look at or see the screen and so needs the content read aloud, like a person who's using their computer while driving a car, for example. An individual with low vision has similar needs to someone using a small hand-held computer with a screen so tiny, text can't be read. A deaf user needs captioning in the same way a person whose computer can't read sound files does. There are lots of parallels.

    "And then there is the issue of display mechanisms. What about the wireless access protocols (WAP) being introduced to allow people to browse the Web from cell phones? Pages with non-standard technologies won't work in that environment. And while a classroom isn't likely to have a CAVE handy, or an ImmersaDesk, a high school science class would certainly be enriched if students using a desktop computer could interact with simulations originally designed for those large, immersive platforms. The bottom line is that if your Web applications don't transform to fit different access parameters, you're locking out a lot of potential users, with and without disabilities."

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    TRACE AND OUTREACH

    The Trace Center is a founding member of EOT-PACI. "We're helping NPACI and Alliance researchers think about accessibility, but our role goes far beyond that." Vanderheiden says. "An original goal of NPACI was to move toward 'pervasive and ubiquitous computing,' a state that requires flexible, adaptable software running over the partnership's advanced networks. As the thrust areas mature and evolve we anticipate that our experience and guidance will help their technologies transform gracefully, too."--AF *

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