Accessibility and the Web | WebReference

Accessibility and the Web

Accessibility and the Web

By Lee Underwood

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." — Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Most people don't usually think too much about accessing the World Wide Web, except perhaps in terms of their computer connection. Their main concerns with accessibility are focused on increasing the speed of their Internet connection, whether they should upgrade to cable or DSL, and whether their connection is really secure. Not much thought is usually given to the process of navigating and interacting with Web sites. It's generally taken for granted, except when a site is slow or unavailable. It's similar to walking through the aisles of a retail store. Unless there is something unusual about the aisles, they're just a means of getting around the store. The only time any of it becomes obvious or important is when the process is designed to be an integral part of the experience.

However, for many people, the basic act of navigating a Web site can occasionally be an experience in itself. This is especially true when the site uses multimedia effects or gimmicks for navigation, i.e., Disney Online. Often, the designer of a multimedia site does not include alternative methods for navigation or viewing, making it extremely difficult for some visitors to access the site (The Disney site mentioned above failed the accessibility tests of both the Federal Section 508 guidelines and the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium [W3C]).

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Usually, the main reason for having a Web site is so people around the world can visit it — whether to buy your client's merchandise, read insightful articles, view tasteful artwork, or just interact with your client directly (there are private uses but they're not a part of the majority). Whatever the reason, the main goal is to have visitors. In order to have — and keep — visitors, the Web site must be accessible. Although your client's Web site is probably accessible to most potential visitors, there may be some who cannot access it due to its design. In some situations, that may be acceptable. You may already know who exactly your client's customers will be and what they need to access the site, and you've designed it accordingly. Generally, however, that's usually not the case, which means that you may need to be prepared for other types of visitors, as well.

Some of the methods used for improving Web site access may not be compatible with all browsers. Implementing better Web site accessibility may entail some investigation on the part of the Web designer, depending on what is to be included in the Web page. I have included a list of links at the end of this article for that very purpose.

While the term "accessible" is used in reference to disabled users (those with audio, visual, physical, cognitive, and neurological disabilities), the term also applies to other types of persons, i.e., users of mobile phones, Palm and Pocket-PC type devices, Web-TV viewers, users with low bandwidth, users with a low literacy level, and users who speak English as a second language. In order for these people to visit your client's site, you need to make sure it's accessible.

If your site includes a large amount of graphics, they may be a hinderance to many of your visitors, i.e. those on mobile devices or with low bandwidth. If the graphics are necessary to the site, then there may be other options for them (i.e., alternative pages) or the site just may not be available to them. And that may be alright, depending on what the purpose of the site is. If the goal of the Web site is to provide up-to-the-minute medical information for doctors, and graphics are not really necessary, then you will need to design it for access by visitors who may be using mobile phones, Palm and Pocket-PC type devices or have low bandwidth. If, on the other hand, you are designing a game site, or some other type of site which, by its very nature, requires a large amount of graphics, then you may not need to concern yourself with the bandwidth of the visitors or their use of mobile devices. It all goes back to knowing your client's visitors, and that may take some research to understand.

According to the W3C, "The percentage of people with disabilities in many populations is between 10% and 20%." If we include those listed above who are not technically "disabled," the percentage is probably closer to 30%. Although not all of those people have Internet access, it's still too large of a group of potential visitors to be ignored.

Making a Web site accessible is not really difficult. There is no need to design two Web sites. That would, in effect, create two different audiences, as well as make site maintenance a nightmare. The idea is to make one, all-inclusive Web site. There are different methods to help accomplish this. We'll look at some later in this article. If you have a basic knowledge of XHTML and CSS, it shouldn't be that hard. Trenton Moss, in a recent article on accessibility, put it quite succinctly, "Web accessibility is all about following design standards and then adding in a few simple accessibility features. It's not just about disabled users being able to access your Web site — it's about everyone being able to access your Web site" (his article,"What Is Web Accessibility?", provides good insight into some of the different types of problems with inaccessibility).

Legal Requirements

Many countries (i.e., Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States) are introducing laws pertaining to accessibility to Web sites by disabled persons. As for the U.S., the laws, for the most part, are included under Federal statutes. The applicable regulations are Section 508 (although it does not specifically require private sector companies to comply with the regulations, it provides strong motivation by requiring Federal agencies to purchase products from companies that best meet the standards), the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] (applies to the public sector as well as to organizations and private businesses), and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act (requires telecommunication products and services to be accessible whenever it is "readily achievable").

Shawn Henry, WAI Outreach Coordinator at the W3C, states that, "In a sense, there is no such thing as 'ADA compliance' for Web sites." While the ADA has been applied to Web sites, it does not include specific guidelines for Web site accessibility. In an effort to meet the spirit of the ADA, several organizations have adopted WCAG Priority 1 and Priority 2 Checkpoints as their standard for Web site accessibility." For a side-by-side comparison of Section 508 Web Standards and WCAG Priority 1 Checkpoints, see the chart at

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: July 12, 2004