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Accessible Web Sites Matter

Get a competitive edge by making your Web site accessible to millions more people worldwide.

A common mistake when creating a Web site is to neglect accessibility. Accessing the Web matters--and not just for those with limited vision, hearing, or mobility. Many other groups have trouble going online, and these groups may number among your organization's customers or employees. Making your Web site more accessible can improve customer experience with your site and might also give you a competitive advantage when bidding on contracts.

For example, accessibility matters to people using their sight or hands for other tasks, as well as those working in a loud environment who can't hear Web content. Accessibility also matters to people using PDA browsers, cell phone browsers, and WebTV, technologies that sometimes make getting online difficult. At the other end of the technology spectrum, accessibility is an issue for those with slow connections, poor phone lines, or older browsers that don't handle tables and frames. Accessibility even matters to search robots as they attempt to index and abstract your Web site.

Accessibility is also important to a rapidly growing segment of Internet users--seniors. In December 1998, people over age 55 bought 23 percent of all consumer PCs in North America. Seniors using the Internet spend more time online than any other age group. Accessibility is a significant issue for seniors because, by age 65, most people have a harder time focusing and resolving images, distinguishing colors, and adapting to changes in light. Some hearing loss is common by age 65, and arthritis and joint stiffening may make using a keyboard or mouse more difficult.

Accessibility may even be a legal matter. A visually impaired public-transit customer recently filed a complaint claiming the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission Web site violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the commission's Web site is inaccessible to his screen reader, which translates text from Web sites. Similarly, in November 1999, the National Federation of the Blind filed suit against American Online (AOL), stating AOL violates the ADA because AOL has "failed to remove communications' barriers presented by its designs, thus denying the blind independent access to this service."

The ADA applies to many people: about 35 million people in the U.S. have disabilities, according to government statistics. The World Health Organization estimates disabilities at 750 million people worldwide. Your organization must take accessibility into account.

Guidelines for Universal Access

Fortunately, making your Web site legal is easy. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) offers comprehensive guidelines for making your Web content accessible to everyone, and the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) recommended adopting these guidelines in May 1999. Tap into these resources so you understand what to do and what to avoid as you design your Web site.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines for Universal Access to Web Content

  1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
  2. Don't rely on color alone.
  3. Use markup and style sheets, and do so properly.
  4. Clarify natural language use.
  5. Create tables that transform gracefully.
  6. Ensure pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
  7. Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
  8. Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
  9. Design for device-independence.
  10. Use interim solutions.
  11. Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
  12. Provide context and orientation information.
  13. Provide clear navigational mechanisms.
  14. Ensure documents are clear and simple.

Each of these 14 WAI guidelines includes a prioritized and cross-referenced set of checkpoints, and each checkpoint links to a set of techniques you can implement.

Figure 1: Selection From the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines for Universal Access to Web Content. The WAI guidelines incorporate a prioritized and cross-referenced set of checkpoints, with links to a set of techniques you can implement. In this example, a priority 1 checkpoint for identifying language changes points to a technique that explains how to use the html lang attribute.
Screenshots: Snippets from (WAI) Guidelines for Universal Access to Web Content.

Designing your Web site appropriately for each checkpoint often benefits multiple disability groups, as well as the Web community as a whole. For example, when providing a series of related links, provide introductory information in the first link, and then add distinguishing information in the following links. This helps auditory users, such as the blind, visually impaired, or those who use devices with small or no displays—basically, people who can't scan the page quickly with their eyes. By handling the links this way, these users get a good sense of the related links as they "scan" by tabbing from one link to the next.

Before you begin to feel overwhelmed at the thought of assessing your Web site against 14 guidelines that specify 65 checkpoints, you'll be glad to know the WAI prioritizes the checkpoints, so you can focus on what's critical:

WAI Checkpoint Priorities

  • Priority 1. A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find accessing information in the document impossible. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents.
  • Priority 2. A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint can remove significant barriers to accessing Web documents.
  • Priority 3. A Web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint can improve access to Web documents.

Use these priorities when you plan to enhance your existing Web site. Make certain any new pages you develop comply with priority 1 and 2 checkpoints. As you revise pages, make sure they at least comply with priority 1 checkpoints. Make sure critical pages, such as high traffic and important content, also comply with priority 2 checkpoints. Comply with priority 3 checkpoints after you've upgraded your site to meet all priority 1 and 2 checkpoints.

Testing Your Web Site

Several products enable you to test your Web site for accessibility compliance. One easy way is to use Bobby, a Web-based tool that checks your Web site's accessibility. Created by the Center for Applied Special Technology, Bobby is free on its Web site (Cast.org). Enter your Web site's URL and Bobby tests the entire site against the WAI guidelines. As an added benefit, Bobby also tests your site for browser compatibility. Bobby checks every line of the site and creates a detailed report of any access problems.

Figure 2: Here's Bobby, Cast.org's Tool to Evaluate Web Accessibility. Bobby is a free, Web-based tool for evaluating a Web site’s accessibility. This example shows part of a detailed report created for the DevX.com Web site.
Screenshot: Here's Bobby, Cast.org's tool to evaluate Web accessibility.

Two products from The Productivity Works enable you to test your Web site design by listening to how the site sounds when converted to speech. One product, pwWebSpeak PLUS, is a nonvisual Web browser that reads Web pages to you. The other product, pwTelephone, enables you to browse your Web site over the telephone. Test your Web site with either of these tools to experience your site as people with reading and sight problems will hear it.

All is not lost if your Web site depends on Java. Sun Microsystems Inc. has developed an accessibility API for Java applications. The Java Accessibility API helps you create assistive technologies to interact and communicate with Java Foundation Classes and AWT Abstract Windowing Toolkit components. Typical technologies include screen reading, screen magnification, and speech recognition. Both people with and without disabilities can use accessibility-enabled Java applications.

If your interest is piqued, you definitely want to explore the Trace Research and Development Center Web site. Trace, a research center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, focuses on making technology more accessible for everyone. Trace hosts Designing a More Usable World for All, a Web site devoted to encouraging the following principles of universal design:

Principles of Universal Design

  1. Equitable Use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use. Use of the design is easy-to-understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low-Physical Effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

This Web site provides many useful resources, including a variety of articles, research results, and links on topics such as Web-access tools, multimedia, and virtual-reality access. This site also provides information about organizations, projects, and technologies addressing Web-access issues and forums for discussing accessibility issues. A good way to start is by reading an article about the major disability groups and some specific barriers to accessibility they encounter, and then browsing through the rest of the material.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through a myriad of new devices, Web accessibility matters more and more—to everyone. By following the principles and guidelines here and on the Web, you can make your Web site accessible to all and give your organization the competitive edge it needs.

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