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Web Accessibility – Beijing Olympics: Revisiting The Errors Of The Past

by Majeed Saleh.

The Olympic Games are currently being followed avidly by sports fans, journalists and politicians worldwide, many of them using the official Beijing 2008 website (http://en.beijing2008.cn/), the most comprehensive source of information on events.

Given the huge global interest the Olympics always stimulates, the demands and expectations on the Games website are high, and designing a site to please everyone is always going to be tough. Where accessibility for people with disabilities is concerned, however, previous organisers have not always got it right.

In one of the most celebrated legal cases ever to take place in any nation concerned with web accessibility, Bruce Maguire, a blind Australian web user, successfully sued the organisers of the 2000 Sydney Games for not only failing to produce an accessible website but for refusing to make the changes required that would have enabled him and other blind users to use the website.

In a damning indictment, the Australian Human Right and Equal Opportunities Commission said the Sydney Games organising committee SOCOG “never seriously considered the issue and only when the hearing was imminent did it attempt to support its rejection of the complainant’s complaint by resort to a process which was both inadequate and unconvincing.” The committee was ordered to pay Maguire 20,000 Australian Dollars (for our reports on this important case see E-Access Bulletins issues 9-11, September to November 2000; plus issue 17, May 2001. These is a also an excellent report on the affair on web access expert Joe Clark’s archive website at http://contenu.nu/socog.html).

Four years later, with the Greek organisers eager not to fall into the same trap, the site for the 2004 games in Athens was designed with accessibility to the fore, and few complaints were raised. But now the spotlight has turned on China, and the signs are that the Beijing organisers have taken a less thorough approach, and failed to heed the lessons of the past.

Last year Henny Swan, senior web accessibility consultant at the RNIB, conducted an initial study of the accessibility of the official Beijing Olympics website. At the time the site was far from reaching its final state and while the signs for accessibility were not all bad, the indications were that a range of improvements would be needed before the site would meet even the basic level of compliance with the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0.

Among the positives picked up last year, Swan cited an attempt to provide ALT text to images and a fairly logical heading structure. But the site also displayed many accessibility failures such as overuse of animated images; some missing ALT text; lack of alternatives for multimedia; inadequately described links, for example using just the one word ‘more'; poor mark-up of data tables; inaccessible animated Flash objects; fixed font sizes;  and extensive use of JavaScript without alternatives (see http://fastlink.headstar.com/beijing1).

So how far has the site been improved in the intervening period?

Swan told E-Access Bulletin this week that, in the year since her initial assessment of the site, some of these issues have been corrected. For example, it is now possible to adjust the font size on pages. However, she said: “where one issue may have been fixed, others have taken its place.”

“There is still a lot of animation that fails to stop moving after three seconds,” she said. “This can be a distraction for people with reading problems or people with low vision. There are still no text alternatives for multimedia which means many people, including mobile users, will be locked out of content. New windows also seem to open from within Flash movies, which is not only an accessibility but also a usability issue.”

These issues could have a wider impact than the restriction of access for people with disabilities, Swan said. “Many of the issues that adversely affect people with disabilities also affect many other users such as mobile users, users on dial up or older browsers. Had accessibility advice been followed the site would have opened up to significantly more people.”

There are signs that the Beijing organising committee, BOCOG, may have concluded that web accessibility would not be as much of an issue for the Olympic Games as for the Paralympics, which are set to take place from 6 to 17 September. Though neither site has an accessibility statement, unlike the website for the Olympics the website for the Paralympics does claim in press releases to have been designed according to international accessibility guidelines, and the site is visibly more simply designed (http://en.paralympic.beijing2008.cn/).

In July a press release on the Paralympics site (http://fastlink.headstar.com/para1) announced that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Science and Technology had launched some ‘improvements’ to both the official BOCOG site (http://en.olympic.cn/) and the website of the Chinese Disabled Persons Federation (http://www.cdpf.org.cn/english/).

According to the press release – these modifications include automatic text resizing; an automatic sign language system for deaf users; and a free ‘speech broadcasting’ system in English and Chinese.

Attempts to find out more about the ‘speech broadcasting’ features meet with confused and patchy results, however. There is no sign of this system on the front page of the Beijing2008 site or indeed any of the other official English language Olympics sites, including the BOCOG site mentioned in the press release, nor does it materialise in any site search of the Olympic pages.

The Chinese Disabled Persons Federation, which was mentioned in the same release, does have a ‘voice’ link at the top of its page which takes to the user to stripped down version of the site and reads out text using the mouse pointer. However this body has no obvious connection with the Olympics and it is unclear why it was mentioned at all.

There is a link to a different ‘Easy Web Browsing’ (EWB) system through a banner advertisement on the Paralympics website (http://fastlink.headstar.com/beijing2). This section tells users that the system is designed to help the illiterate, visually impaired, elderly, those with learning difficulties and those not used to computers. The system can speak in several languages including Chinese, Japanese, French, English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian and is able to detect the language of the page automatically.

However the EWB does not quite live up to its name. To use the system, the user must download a programme which only works with Microsoft Internet Explorer.

To operate it the user must move his or her mouse pointer over a paragraph of text which is then magnified and read aloud. However, the program stops reading at the end of each paragraph and to continue to the next paragraph the user must reposition the mouse. Such a system could not benefit somebody unable to effectively operate a mouse, including blind people and those with poor motor control.

Overall, Swan said it seems likely that BOCOG did not produce a clear accessibility plan for the website. “It is disappointing that lessons from the legal case against the Sydney Olympic website have not been learned.”

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