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Web Accessibility - an introduction

Approximately 20% of the US population has one type of disability or another - and together they have 175 billion dollars a year in discretionary income!

Imagine, for example, someone who is blind wants to buy an item, say an audio version of a book.

They have 2 choices:

  1. Get a friend to drive them to a store, find the product for them, read the price off the label for them, check their change for them, etc.

  2. Turn on their computer, connect to the internet and make the purchase online.

With option 1, assuming they are even able to find someone to assist them in making the purchase, they are forced to sacrifice all privacy and all independence. With option 2, they purchase the item on their own time, all by themselves.

But how in the world would a blind person be able to use the internet? It's a visual medium isn't it, you might ask?

No - actually, it's an electronic medium.

Web pages are made up of files, which describe the structure of their content, so that the content can be interpreted by any of a number of browsing devices.

Many blind people use an AT device called a screen reader to access the web. Screen reader software enables people to navigate through the web and reads out loud to them the content of web sites they visit.

Well, it does if the web site has been made accessible.

So what is web accessibility anyway?

Web accessibility refers to creating web pages so that they are more usable by everyone, including people with disabilities involving sight, movement, etc. and are device independent.

The World Wide Web consortium launched the Web Accessibility Initiative in 1997. In 1999 they released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines explain how to make a web site accessible.

Many countries have passed laws concerning web accessibility that require government web sites to conform to the WCAG guidelines. In the US, the web sites of Federal agencies are required to made accessible by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The ADA requires that places of public accommodation have to be made accessible. Over time, web sites are beginning to be recognized as being places of public accommodation also.

Earlier I said that many blind people use screen readers to access the web. Some disabilities require the use of other technologies. The blind-deaf use refreshable Braille displays to access the web. Some people with limited mobility use a keyboard exclusively, because it is difficult for them to coordinate movement with a mouse. Sometimes they even use special keyboards with bigger buttons.

Some types of disabilities don't require the use of special devices, some just need the pages to be coded in a way that they can use. People who are color blind, for example, may have difficulty understanding content that is conveyed with color only - like in a pie chart. If text abbreviations are included, along with color, in the individual pie slices colorblind people can then understand the content also.

Many elderly people whose eye sight is failing need text to be presented in a larger font size for them to be able to read it. This just requires that web sites code their text in a relative rather fixed font size so that it can be made bigger by the browser.

The above are all examples of functional limitations. All of us, at one time or another, can experience situational limitations. These take the form of accessing the web in dark or noisy places, or with a really slow connection. Many people access the web with hand held devices such as Palm Pilots and Pocket PC's. These all have small display screen sizes and many cannot display content in color.

The use of refreshable Braille displays and handhelds are examples of why web sites need to be device independent to be accessible - the content of web sites need to be usable regardless of what type of browsing tool people use to access it. If the future people will need internet access through even more devices than now - cars, refrigerators - and who knows what else?

It should be noted that accessibility is closely related to usability, standards compliance and search engine optimization.

Usability refers to designing web sites which can be used quickly and easily. Basic usability principles have been determined through extensive testing of typical web users. Accessibility is considered to be a subset of usability. In the offline world many things designed for the use of disabled people are used by many people without disabilities as well - because it makes them more usable in general. The best example of this is curb cuts, designed to make it is easier for people in wheelchairs to get on and off sidewalks - they are now more often used by people pushing strollers or pulling luggage.

One of the requirements of accessibility guidelines is for web sites to follow coding standards specified by the W3C. Standards compliant coding results in uncluttered, clean web files which help web sites to rank higher in search engine results pages, as well as to perform better in small handheld devices.

A closing thought:

Legal issues aside, with $175 billion discretionary spending money from people with disabilities at stake, plus the current and predicted future market for handheld internet access - can businesses afford not to make their web sites accessible?

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