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Accessible Web Sites Matter
Get a competitive edge by making your Web site accessible to millions more
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
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
- Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
- Don't rely on color alone.
- Use markup and style sheets, and do so properly.
- Clarify natural language use.
- Create tables that transform gracefully.
- Ensure pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
- Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
- Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
- Design for device-independence.
- Use interim solutions.
- Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
- Provide context and orientation information.
- Provide clear navigational mechanisms.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
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
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
- Equitable Use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse
- Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual
preferences and abilities.
- Simple and Intuitive Use. Use of the design is easy-to-understand,
regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current
- Perceptible Information. The design communicates necessary information
effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's
- Tolerance for Error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse
consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Low-Physical Effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably,
and with a minimum of fatigue.
- 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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