Introduction to Web Accessibility

Summary

Web Accessibility can be described as the degree to which anyone can access and use a website using any web browsing technology. A fully accessible website is one that is designed to make use of the latest web technologies, such as multimedia, while at the same time accommodating the needs of those who have difficulty with or are unable to use these technologies.

Web Accessibility is about designing and creating web pages on the Web that can be used and understood by people that have one or more disabilities.

Accessibility involves making allowances for characteristics a person cannot readily change.

  • A deaf person cannot stop being deaf when confronted with a soundtrack.
  • A blind person cannot stop being blind when confronted with visible words and images.
  • A learning-disabled person cannot reset the functions of the brain when confronted with the same.
  • A person with a mobility impairment cannot suddenly begin to move when confronted with a navigation task.
  • A unilingual Anglophone cannot suddenly understand French when confronted with that language.

The way in which a disabled people access the Web will largely depend on the type of disability they have, and whether or not their disability affects the way they use a computer. For those that need it, the use of adaptive or assistive technology - hardware or software that eliminates barriers to using a computer (Clark, 2006, p. 29.) - is required.

For mobility-impaired users, the adaptive technology takes the form of alternative keyboards and mice. For visually-impaired users, the adaptive technology takes the form of screen magnification tools, and for blind users, screen readers.

In terms of United Kingdom (UK) legislation, since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act(DDA) in 1995 and subsequent amendments in October 1999, all UK businesses have been legally required to provide accessible websites under these laws. The laws, however, have not been strictly enforced and to date no legal action has been taken against any UK business for non-compliance.

At the time of writing, the only known legal case concerning Web Accessibility was Maguire vs. Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG). An Australian resident, Bruce Maguire, lodged a legal complaint under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (1992) concerning the SOCOG website which was inaccessible to him as a blind user. The outcome of the case was that the SOCOG were found guilty of non-compliance and fined twenty thousand Australian dollars.

In the UK, according to the Disability Rights Commission, there are an estimated ten million registered disabled people in the country. This effectively means that any inaccessible commercial E-Commerce or online shopping businesses in the UK are "turning away" a significant amount of potential customers, and ultimately revenue that could impact their profits.

To assist with the creation of web accessible content, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published a set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines outline the general principles for designing web pages in an accessible manner. Currently, WCAG 1.0 is used as the de facto standard for accessible design, whilst WCAG 2.0 is being completed.

The WCAG 1.0 is organized into several checkpoints, which explain the practical application of each guideline. Each checkpoint has a priority level based on the impact it has on Accessibility. Priority 1 (described as Level A) checkpoints must be satisfied, Priority 2 (described as Level AA) checkpoints should be satisfied, and Priority 3 (described as Level AAA) checkpoints may be satisfied.

One of the shortcomings of the WCAG 1.0 is the support for dynamic web content, and WCAG 2.0 aims to address the challenges presented by the accessibility of dynamic Web content for people with disabilities. The idea is to improve adaptive technology support for Rich Internet Applications, which include technologies like JavaScript, Dynamic HTML and more recent, AJAX.

In broader terms, Web accessibility is about making web pages, and ultimately websites, accessible and usable by as many people as possible. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • People accessing the Web using mobile devices, including mobile phones and PDA's, or any other web-enabled device,
  • People using any type of web browser to access the Web, whether it is the latest version of the browser or older redundant versions,
  • People with slow Internet connection speeds,
  • Young people who have limited hand-eye coordination,
  • The growing ageing population who are becoming internet-savvy, often termed "Silver Surfers",
  • Search engines, which are better able to read, index and rank accessible web pages,
  • And anyone else who experiences problems accessing content on the Web.