An incorrect choice of the encoding format used to capture and disseminate electronic information represents the biggest pot-hole on the NII today. Encoding formats that assume that the only way information will be accessed is by someone using a conventional display risk closing out a large percentage of the population from access to such information. An unfortunate example of this is the online tax form service made available by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the US Department Of Treasury -Available at Url: Hot Link. This resource provides direct online access to all the federal and tax forms. Though tax-forms are perhaps not the kind of thing one would want to read out of pleasure, they are still an unfortunate part of all our lives. Tax forms on paper present a daunting challenge to persons with visual impairments, and at present it is practically impossible for someone with a print impairment to file their taxes without help.
Given this scenario, an electronic tax form repository is an extremely promising resource for persons with visual impairments. At little or no extra cost, these documents could be made immediately accessible. Yet, the archival and distribution format chosen, PDF, only encapsulates the visual representation of the tax forms. In this situation, making the popular WWW clients accessible does not help; a visually impaired user accessing this resource can perform a search for the appropriate tax form and have it displayed on the screen; unfortunately, once the form has been displayed, she will find that her speech access program only sees a blank screen!
This is because the form is displayed in its raw visual form, i.e., as a ``picture'' of what the printed form looks like. Thus, though this ``display'' of the form is well-suited to someone who can see the monitor, it's practically useless to someone using a speech interface. Thus, in this scenario, we have ``successfully'' replaced printed paper (which cannot be easily read by someone who cannot see) with a form of electronic paper, which is even harder to read!
The justification used for the above approach to the electronic dissemination of tax forms is ``This is an experimental service'', and ``This does not replace the traditional forms on paper''. Yet, it clearly represents an example of a lost opportunity; a significant advantage of introducing new technology -the ability to increase access - has been sacrificed in the cause of delivering high-quality visual reproductions of material that is currently available on paper. Thus, in this scenario, the NII degenerates from being a vehicle of information exchange to being an expensive replacement for a $[tex2html_wrap139] postage stamp!
Yet another example of a useful WWW service that is currently inaccessible for the same reason is an online version of the New York Times, something that (unlike the tax forms) one would certainly read with pleasure! This is available daily on the WWW-Available at Url: Hot Link. but the format used is once again PDFTeX. Once again, the result is inaccessible. This is not to say that there are no accessible newspapers on the WWWTeX. Notable among the success stories on the WWW both in terms of being accessible to all, as well as providing up-to-date information include Time Daily (Available at Url: Hot Link), Money OnLine (Available at Url: Hot Link), and the San Jose Mercury (Available at Url: Hot Link), amongst others. All of these provide the information in HTML, allowing the WWW client to display the information in a manner chosen by the user.
Thus, there is a clear distinction to be made between the information servers and the clients used to access such servers. It is the responsibility of the information client to present the information in a manner appropriate to the individual user's needs and abilities. However, the information server needs to provide the information in a sufficiently high-level form so that it can be seamlessly accessed by different clients. Hence, it is wrong for an information server to assume any single mode of presentation.