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WHAT IS UNIVERSAL DESIGN AND HOW IS IT CHANGING THE INTERNET?

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The U. S. Census Bureau says that over 54 million Americans have disabilities—but this is a misleading statistic. It does not reflect the vast numbers of people who, for limited periods of time, will experience mobility, emotional, learning, visual, aural or cognitive disabilities due to illness, aging, surgery, stress, trauma or grief. This unrecognised population fluctuates as individuals move into or recover from a “disabled” state. Yet this concept—a revolving, evolving, transitional continuum of being—is the true measure of disability: that place where, for whatever reason, for whatever time, we do not have full function ability. Each of us has nearly a 100% chance of experiencing our rotation on that continuum at some point in our life. This continuum represents the universal experience. Universal Design creates physical environments and systems that are usable by everyone as they take their place on the continuum of experience, for whatever length of time.

“The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.” http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/

The principles of Universal Design (UD) have been around for at least 15 years but the changes in our environment are being realized quietly, without many people understanding what is driving them. This is understandable since many forces, some below the radar, are shaping our adaptation of assistive technologies. Sometimes the results of the Universal Design approach make our environments easier to use in ways none of us anticipated. The more we approach UD from the viewpoint of our universal needs, the more organically UD environments will evolve.

A good example of this organic type of change is happening on the Internet. Adaptation of Universal Design features has become a big event for designers and user interface architects in the past three years even though the recommendations for accessible web development were introduced as early as February of 1997 by the W3C.

Federal legislation in the United States, primarily Section 508 of Public Law 99-506 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, addresses accessibility problems faced by persons with disabilities in the workplace and community. There is nothing in Section 508 that requires private web sites to comply unless they are receiving federal funds or are under contract to a federal agency.

Commercial best practices include voluntary compliance to the standards and guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Voluntary accessibility checkers (engines) as "Bobby" and AccVerify, refer to Section 508 guidelines but have difficulty in accurately testing content for accessibility. For a concise but fairly comprehensive definition go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_508

In practice, as few as two years ago, it was nearly impossible to build access-friendly websites that could be viewed with consistent results on the most popular browsers. What might pass for “pretty ugly” on one browser would be all but unreadable on another. Today that has changed. Somewhere along the timeline, browsers began to support the development guidelines—not always consistently—for accessibility. A tipping point occurred when it became commercially favorable to adopt compliant practices, making it possible to follow best practices for access with attractive results. Designers jumped on board eager to make the resulting websites things of beauty, in code, in presentation and in usability.

Many variables influenced the implementation of accessible features in web design.  On the digital front, RSS, Podcasting, mobile phones with streaming capability, PDAs and Blogs are driving development platforms, languages and protocols towards universal access—meaning everyone and every device can have access to the same information. It is serendipitous that many of our newest devices have the same access issues as human users with special needs.