A More Accessible Internet

The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, remains a landmark piece of legislation. Wheelchair ramps, accessible public facilities, and designated parking areas are just the most obvious changes it has brought.

More fundamentally, the act reflected a changed attitude toward those dealing with impairment. These individuals were no longer to be pushed to the fringes of productive life, but helped into its mainstream.

But as the ADA became part of the fabric of national life, society itself was being transformed. Notably, the Internet, once the esoteric realm of researchers, was becoming the hub of business, commercial, civic, and even social interaction.

For the rights of the disabled to mean anything in today's world, they must be extended to cyberspace no less than to parking spaces. As the cover story of today's Ideas section points out, this extension of the ADA is starting to pick up momentum.

It's getting a definite nudge from a lawsuit filed by the National Federation for the Blind against America Online. The point at issue is access to AOL's e-mail services.

But the high-tech industry, by and large, is inclined to respond to such claims, not fight them. AOL says its services will be accessible to the blind within the next year. Other big players, Microsoft and IBM for example, have actively supported Web accessibility for the disabled.

Web-watching nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have devised standards of accessibility and tools to measure the compliance of Web sites. Captions, audio texts, and color options are among the many ways Web material can be made more universally available.

The ADA makes it clear that public spaces should be accessible to everyone. Surveys have shown that most Americans back this, despite the construction costs it involves.

The Internet is a new and critical kind of public space. Opening it to everyone will also require added time, thought, and cost. But as with those earlier changes, the gains in more fully utilized intelligence and talent far outweigh the price.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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