Saturday, August 27, 2005

Web sites about cancer aren't accessible

“Stay informed” is high on the list of advice given to cancer patients.  And there’s a lot of information about cancer online. A lot. But a great deal of is inaccessible to cancer patients and caregivers who are blind, including me.

Here are a few of the cancer-related sites where I encountered accessibility problems, including important things such as graphical links without alternative text, form fields without labels, and large blocks of material repeated from page to page with no way to skip over them :

The Lance Armstrong Foundation and Kimmel Center sites are just about completely useless to patients and caregivers who depend on screen reading software, as I do. I find this especially galling, since the Armstrong Foundation is Austin-based and Johns Hopkins is an important research center and likely offers valuable information. It’s doubly annoying since my Ph.D. is from Hopkins.  I guess I should have been more responsive to all those letters begging for money over the years.

The Mayo Clinic’s Leukemia page ( gets it almost right—the search form isn’t labeled (JAWS just says “Edit,” and you have to guess the purpose of the field), but the text on the page is organized under properly tagged headings and sub-headings, making it easy to navigate to the material I want (and, incidentally, allowing me to skip over the repeated navigation links).  There are even warnings about links that will cause a second window to open! Those particular links point to another Mayo Clinic site, (not .org), and, much to my surprise, those pages even have a “Skip to main content” link in addition to structured information! Someone at Mayo is making a deliberate and largely successful effort at accessibility, and that effort deserves recognition. Thanks, Mayo Clinic!

Making Web content accessible isn’t rocket science, and professional Web designers and developers like the ones who create and maintain the sites listed above should have heard about it by now.  The US government’s standards for accessible electronic and information technologies, including Web-based information and applications, took effect in June 2001.  That’s more than four years ago now. The World Wide Web Consortium published its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 two years earlier, in May 1999. In Web-time, in other words, this stuff has been around nearly forever.

Accessibility is what I do for a living, but this isn’t simply about professional pride, nor is it only about the frustration and anger I feel personally as I try to learn more about leukemia and how it may affect my life. Millions and millions of people, in the United States and elsewhere, are being directed to the Web for medical information that can dramatically affect their lives—patients, caregivers, friends, co-workers, medical workers, researchers, people caught up in war, people caught up in ordinary life. Many of those people have disabilities.  There’s no excuse for major medical sites’ being inaccessible to them—to us.


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