Design & Development

Tech Support July 2007: Accessibility

I keep hearing about accessibility. What is it and why is it important?

Accessibility, in the context of a website, is the measure of how easily people with disabilities can perceive, navigate, access and interact with electronic content and information. People with disabilities face unique challenges when it comes to using the Internet. Whether the user is suffering temporarily from a broken arm and cannot use a mouse or has a visual impairment that requires an assistive device, most websites have accessibility barriers preventing users with disabilities to effectively use certain sites.

Developers have a special responsibility, in some cases a legally binding responsibility, to ensure that websites are built in a way that enables them to function with assistive devices and technologies. In many cases, neither the owners of websites or developers of websites are even aware that accessibility standards exist.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has spearheaded the Web Accessibility Initiative, or WAI, as an effort to coordinate a series of guidelines for accessibility that explain how to make content on a website available to users with disabilities. Each of these guidelines, which are called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), is assigned a priority level that determines its importance to disabled users. Web content developers must satisfy all “priority one” guidelines in order to meet the minimum requirements for disabled users. “Priority two” guidelines should be satisfied in an effort to remove “significant” barriers to disabled users. “Priority three” guidelines are currently optional, and web developers may find that satisfying these requirements will improve access for disabled users.

In many cases, legal mandates exist requiring website developers to meet certain accessibility requirements. The United States, Canada and European Union all have laws in place defining which accessibility requirements must be met by government websites. Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act defines accessibility standards that any website designed or maintained by government agencies in the United States must meet. In addition, many state and local governments, not to mention educational and nonprofit institutions, are setting their own accessibility requirements to ensure disabled users have access to digital information.

So what does this mean to website owners and developers? In a nutshell, it means in order to ensure compliance with accessibility standards, websites should look to achieve an AA compliance level, which means all “priority one” and “priority two” guidelines have been addressed, according to the WCAG. Luckily, bringing a website into compliance with these guidelines has some other benefits that make the investment in compliance much more attractive. Let’s take a look at a few example guidelines to illustrate this point.

Guideline No. 3 of the WCAG simply reads, “Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.” The accessibility perspective on this guideline is that by using markup for content and stylesheets for visual formatting, the content of a website is effectively separated from the display and available to alternative devices other than browsers.

However, the impact of this on the search engine optimization of a website can be staggering. That is, a web page optimized for accessibility will also be optimized for search engines, which is practical since the goal of accessibility is to facilitate the communication of content to alternative devices, such as screen readers and (in this case) search engines.

Another guideline (five) in the WCAG is to “create tables that transform gracefully,” which may be one of the single most prevalent barriers of most websites today. Tables should be used to convey truly tabular data only, and not used to create layouts. The reason for this is screen readers and other assistive devices assume tables contain tabular data, and when developers use tables to create layouts it confuses them. The result is a website that is incomprehensible by someone with disabilities. Again, compliance with this guideline not only removes an accessibility barrier, but also serves to make a website more search engine friendly.

Additionally, guideline number nine seems to really sum up the benefits of making a website accessible. It reads: “Design for device-independence.” Device-independence means a website is not designed to be viewed only on a web browser on a computer. Rather, it is designed in a way that allows users to interact with it via mobile phones, web browsers, handheld personal assistants and assistive devices designed for users with disabilities. By meeting accessibility standards, a website owner also ensures the site can be reached from all types of emerging technologies that allow users of all types to interact with the web.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 53 million Americans of all ages have disabilities. Besides being a staggering number of potential customers that might be turned away due to accessibility barriers, this illustrates the need for website owners to comply with accessibility guidelines. Consider the amount of people worldwide that are living with disabilities and it becomes clear that in addition to being “the right thing to do,” meeting web accessibility guidelines also opens up entirely new markets and sales channels for website owners.

Learn More: additional information on the W3C’s guidelines.

Brian Getting
Brian Getting
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