Naked City

Bringing e-democracy to the disabled

Imagine a veritable NASCAR of breakneck Web design, where the city's top site constructors join with local nonprofits to bring blind and disabled Internet users into the winner's circle. Well imagine no more, as AIR Austin, the city's Accessibility Internet Rally, is hurtling around the track once again, pairing this tech-metropolis' top designers with nonprofits in need of accessible Web sites.

"We believe that everyone, regardless of disability, should have access to the information technology that has changed our lives," said Sharron Rush, executive director of Knowbility, at a press conference last week. Knowbility, the nonprofit coordinating AIR, operates along the "mode of high tech companies," said Rush, with the democratization of information to the disabled as its guiding principal. The group grew out of the first AIR rally in 1998. "When we started," said Rush, "accessibility was completely unheard of."

That's what Knowbility is looking to change. "The key thing you want to provide is user control," said Rush. For the blind, or those with severely limited vision, a screen reader is necessary to use the Web. The program takes a Web site's text and translates it into spoken words. When creating a totally accessible site, assigning text values to as many elements as possible is important, said Rush, noting that sites featuring graphic elements without a text equivalent is the No. 1 hurdle to accessibility. Another rule is making sites navigable via the keyboard, not only the mouse. Moving from link to link through key commands lets users work the Web when pointing and clicking is not an option. Rush said these accessibility improvements help not only the disabled, but all Web users, by making data more easily available and transferable across different platforms, such as PDAs.

Pairing small Web design teams from companies around town with representatives from Austin nonprofits, AIR truly is a rally. The groups will meet for the first time in a Sept. 20 kickoff event at Scholz Garten. From there, Knowbility continues training classes in accessibility until Rally Day Oct. 1. In the course of one workday, each team completely revamps and redesigns its assigned organization's Web site. Then the rebuilt Web sites are judged until Oct. 21, with awards bestowed Oct. 26.

At the press conference, Mayor Will Wynn emphasized the importance of accessibility. Garnering giggles and groans by saying he "wasn't going to editorialize on the Texas Legislature," he pointed to one achievement from the Capitol crew last session: passage of HB 2819, which, taking effect Sept. 1, requires all state agencies to adopt "electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities," akin to the way state and government buildings require physical accessibility. Wynn said the required technology, "disproportionally created in Austin" in comparison to the rest of the state, will assist about 4 million Texans.

Tomorrow – Friday, Aug. 26 – is the final day to register a design team or nonprofit organization. For more information, visit www.knowbility.org/air-austin.

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