Easter Seals Reworks Content Software for Disabled

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Disability nonprofit Easter Seals and software provider Convio are opening doors on the Internet with handicap-accessible Web content management software and a job training program.

For anyone who has a visual or mobility impairment, navigating the Web requires additional equipment and software that can read content aloud or enable browsing without clicking or scrolling.

"There are several things that make a Web site difficult to access," said David Hart, vice president of products and operations at Convio, Austin, TX. "For example, when there is something that is purely visual we have to offer alternative text."

Convio since 2001 has helped Easter Seals' Web resources meet accessibility standards set by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, World Wide Web Consortium and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Making Change Work

The latest endeavor with Easter Seals adapts the nonprofit's content management software, comprising the tools used to create and update Web sites. This lets visually or mobility challenged people work in IT and participate more fully in Web-based environments.

"Easter Seals' mission is to make the world more inclusive for people with disabilities," said Shirley Sexton, vice president of interactive marketing at Easter Seals, Chicago. "The Web has increasingly become an electronic version of community. It goes beyond making the Web accessible. Web content management software gives people with disabilities a voice."

The software changes are coupled with a nationwide Easter Seals internship program begun in May that trains members of the disabled community to work with the software. The program also serves as a testing ground to modify software based on the intern's personal needs and experience.

"No one has done this before on a national scale," Ms. Sexton said.

The five interns work at Easter Seals sites around the country. Beth Finke, a blind freelance writer and author of "Long Time No See" interns at the Chicago headquarters of Easter Seals.

"Ever since I've begun promoting my book and my writing I've wanted to be able to update and manage my Web site," Ms. Finke said.

Ms. Finke's husband helps her manage the site at www.bethfinke.com. The site software has colored fonts and rich media images, with visual cues that are taken for granted by today's Web user.

Ms. Finke described her first week's experience at Easter Seals as "a whole new world to me." Her internship is one step in an ongoing effort to expand technology to meet the needs of a broader market.

Reaching New Markets

"Awareness of Web site accessibility and the standards that support them is at its highest level," said Mike Paciello, founder and principal of The Paciello Group LLP, a Nashua, NH, accessibility consulting and technology services company.

"However, meeting those standards is a different story," he said. "The spectrum runs from the completely inaccessible to very accessible and usable."

Mr. Paciello said poor online accessibility results from a lack of informed and experienced development resources, inconsistent enforcement of and unclear national standards and accessibility laws.

Another problem is making accessibility an industry-wide value proposition that results in increased revenue and profit. Investing in accessibility is a good business strategy.

"Companies are always looking for new ways to capture revenue, and no one likes leaving money on the table," Mr. Paciello said. "Increased access to the Web or Internet in all the online industries means increased exposure to people with disabilities and the potential for increased consumer and small business sales."

Mr. Paciello estimated the U.S. market segment that would benefit from increased accessability measures at 70 million people, including disabled and eldery populations.

"Most online companies are completely unaware of the market potential," he said.

Convio considers its commitment to accessibility as a competitive advantage in the software market. Convio has about 600 nonprofit clients.

"Now [accessibility is] a part of our core product offering," Mr. Hart said. "We are going to take it seriously pretty much forever. It's a lifelong commitment for us."

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