Today’s online environment, in the context of human history, is a thing of wonder. Never before in the span of human development has there been any invention capable of allowing people to converse instantly from across the globe. Our digital capabilities—to share content, entertain, educate, and conduct business—are unparalleled. Truly, we are all fortunate to live in a time such as this one.
Regrettably, not everyone is equally fortunate with regards to their ability to use online resources. There are many number of factors that can act as barriers to the online environment and all its benefits. Such barriers can include physical impairments—motor-skill disorders or amputated limbs—as well as mental or psychological factors, including learning disabilities like dyslexia. A sad fact of today is that people do not have equal access to the online world. That fact is one that must change.
To affect that change, a coalition of web-technology experts have proposed a set of standards to ensure that the web is accessible to all. These standards serve to both outline how web technology can be made more accessible, and detail steps to affect these changes. Over the course of this article, we intend to discuss the concept of accessibility in greater detail, its importance, and how to foster accessibility. We hope that this article helps to inform web developers, site owners, and Internet users in general about the benefits that accessibility can provide.
The concept of accessibility is a fairly self-explanatory one. Simply put, accessibility means that the thing in question—web technology and resources, in this case—is available to everyone. In the context of the web, accessibility means that sites, online tools, and all various web-based systems can be used by people with disabilities. Accessibility allows these individuals to perceive, comprehend, navigate, utilize, and add to the online community.
Accessibility helps web technology to perform its ultimate intended function: to remove the barriers to communication and interaction that exist in the offline world. It is poor system design and bad software development that cause people with disabilities to shy from the web. Web accessibility seeks to combat this and to encourage these lost souls back into the online realm. Accessibility is often confused with the concepts of usability and inclusion. These are part of accessibility, but they are not synonymous with it. Over the next two paragraphs, we will highlight the key points of each concept, in order to illustrate the differences between these three terms.
Usability refers to how easy it is for anyone to use a given technology to achieve their goal – most often the goal it was advertised to achieve. Technologies and products that are highly usable are effective in performing a task, efficient in how they do so, and provide a satisfying experience. Because of this, good user experience design is often a key part of a product’s usability. Usability speaks most often to general aspects of a technology, and not always to the specific ones that bar those with disabilities. Certainly, bolstering a product’s usability will assist disabled users, but no more than non-disabled users; for these people, usability alone is insufficient.
Many with disabilities have specific needs and requirements that general usability research cannot address. This is why usability is considered part of accessibility but should not be confused with it. In order to open a product’s use to those with disabilities, developers must be aware of these special needs and be willing to address them. In other words, they must be willing to go above and beyond usability considerations.
Inclusion is perhaps more directly related to accessibility in that it focuses on involving as many as possible to the greatest extent possible. To that end, inclusion is focused on the needs of those with disabilities, but it also goes beyond that and considers those with other obstacles. Inclusion considers the economic, educational, and cultural factors that may bar people from using certain products or services. It also accounts for difficulties that arise from a person’s native language, or from their geographic location.
Age is also one of the factors addressed by inclusion – both young and old people. In the case of web technology, research into inclusion could assess whether or not computer illiteracy could bar people from web use. Researchers would also look into the quality and availability of web resources—computer networks, hardware, and software—that are available to the people in question.
The viewpoint that a study on inclusion provides can certainly inform accessibility considerations, but it can expand the scope more than can be implemented. As such, it is only one of the factors in accessibility considerations.
For many countries, having web technology up to the standards of accessibility is not really a question of choice. In much of society, accessibility is required as a matter of law; the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has mandated it as such. In order for any business to offer web-based services, they must be accessible to the entire general public. Even without a legal imperative, we as a society have an unspoken moral obligation to make the web fully accessible.
This is the same imperative that makes architects include wheelchair ramps in building blueprints and makes publishers print books in braille. We realize that there are those amongst us who cannot enjoy many of the things we take for granted in life. When we consider how the web is integrated into virtually every aspect of modern life—education, healthcare, business, etc.—making it fully accessible is an unspoken necessity. Even if one ignores the legal and moral ramifications, there are additional reasons why web developers should embrace accessibility. Two such reasons are discussed below.
When one considers the matter, it becomes clear that making web technology more accessible benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. Many of the practices that lead to increased accessibility are often amongst the best practices of any given industry. As we have said, usability is a part of accessibility; if one increases accessibility, usability automatically increases with it. Bolstering accessibility frequently optimizes web technology for mobile usage, search engine optimization, and multi-modal interaction.
By increasing the accessibility of the web for those with disabilities, developers end up making it more accessible for everyone. For example, the same modifications that allow a person with decreased motor control could also allow a person in acute medical distress to search for quick treatment. Improved accessibility does more than help people with long-term disabilities.
It can also aid those whose daily capabilities have been temporarily lost, sometimes for life-threatening reasons. With that fact to consider, making the web more accessible is just common sense. After all, a non-disabled person may find themselves disabled, one day.
From a business perspective, increasing web accessibility makes even more sense. Any company that conducts business online would want to be available to the largest pool of customers possible. As we have alluded, accessibility does not solely apply to the web; workplace policies often mandate maximum accessibility. Those with disabilities are no longer unable to work and earn a living; often times, they can do so quite well.
Businesses should realize that by incorporating accessibility principles into their online services, they can tap a potentially huge market. The benefits of accessibility are not solely limited to a business’ customer base. Keeping in tune with the point made above, the practices that lead to accessibility often foster improved efficiency and effectiveness in web technology.
Making websites more accessible can improve their search rankings, so that more customers see the sites sooner. Accessibility improvements can cut down on maintenance costs, thus bolstering a business’ profit margin from the viewpoint of expenses.
Finally, improving accessibility demonstrates corporate social responsibility, which is golden in the domain of public relations. Put baldly, any business that does not embrace web accessibility is shooting themselves in the foot.
As one would imagine, in order to establish web accessibility, standards would have to be put in place. There is a tendency to view these standards as a list to be followed, but this places too much emphasis on the technical aspects. Because of this, the human element is neglected, and accessibility suffers for it. The best methods for creating accessibility are those that incorporate usability elements, to ensure functional usability as well as technical usability.
In order to develop the best criteria possible for web accessibility, the W3C creates and maintains the international standards for accessibility. When new web technology is developed, it is the W3C that often develops it, while also engaging in outreach, education and open discussion on the subject. Essentially, the W3C sets the pace for the web, and all technology related to it, from e-commerce to simple entertainment.
With over 474 members, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is committed to full-time work in the field of web standardization. Amongst their projects is the Web Accessibility Initiative (the WAI) which provides an international forum on web accessibility. The WAI’s mandate includes collaboration with industry, researchers, disability advocacy groups, governments, and any with an interest in web accessibility. The WAI also contributes to W3C’s efforts to standardize accessibility across the web.
When it comes to devising accessibility solutions, it is the WAI that crafts the techniques, guidelines, resources, and technical specifications needed to execute it. Some of WAI’s duties include raising awareness about this matter, as well as help organizations implement accessibility principles into their websites. Members of WAI deliver presentations and training on accessibility from time to time, and direct interested individuals to the WAI home page.
Those with experience in developing web technology can implement accessibility principles into their designs. Finally, they can provide feedback on accessibility-related issues, and even help to design it. If any individual or organization has any question about accessibility, the W3C WAI good is a good place to begin.
Although the W3C WAI deals with how to implement accessibility policy, the actual standards for web accessibility lie with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines—the WCAG. The current iteration of the WCAG – WCAG 2.0—is a set of recommendations on making web content more accessible to all potential users. Rather than focusing on technical specifications, the WCAG is presented as testable statements. Also included in the WCAG are the criteria for successful implementation, as well as information on how to identify when these occur.
By following the WCAG, businesses and developers will make the web more accessible to people with sight issues, cognitive impairments, and speech difficulties, to name a few. Doing so will also enhance the general usability of the web. The WCAG guidelines are centered around four key principles, which we will discuss shortly. From these, the WCAG derives the list of recommendations for improved accessibility. Some of these criteria apply to the web in general, while others apply more to individual sites. We will be discussing both in greater detail.
Now that we have discussed the purpose and foundations of accessibility, we will proceed to how it can be achieved. Thankfully, this is outlined quite clearly in the WCAG, starting with its four overarching principles, all of which branch off into multiple recommendations.
With these principles as guidelines, there are a number of possible actions to take to foster accessibility online. As previously mentioned, some are applicable to the web as a whole, while others apply more to individual sites.
With regards to the entire web, one way of increasing accessibility is to offer a text alternative to non-text content, such as braille, speech, or symbols. Simpler language could also be acceptable. This provides additional means for users to perceive it. Similarly, alternatives for time-based media, such as videos, could be provided. Perception could be enhanced further with easier ways to see and hear content. The web’s operability could be enhanced by having a keyboard-only option and having a quick method of letting users locate themselves online.
For users with visual difficulties, options to enhance the readability of text is an option. If users make mistakes, there should be an easy way to correct those mistakes. Finally, users can foster accessibility by devising ways for web pages to appear consistently across the net, thus cutting down on confusing layouts.
These recommendations might seem like simple common sense, but they are worth remembering. This also illustrates the fact that accessibility need not be an overly complex process. Sometimes, all it takes is a few simple guidelines.
The following points for individual websites could, in theory, also apply to the entire web. As mentioned, we have grouped them together since they lend themselves more towards websites. First, users may wish to use many different styles to dress up their content, so that at least one such style was what the client saw and liked. The easiest example that springs to mind is the case of the layout; it should be easy to read but should not lose any additional information.
Next, if any content is timed—such as a video—users must have enough time to read and use it, such as a pause button. Even more important is to ensure that site content contains no potential triggers for an epileptic seizure. This can only be done with extensive research into what can set off a seizure and ensuring that these triggers are nowhere near the content.
Finally, developers can ensure that their web technology can interact with other equipment. For example, users who have wheelchairs or prosthetics must still be able to visit and use the site.
This concludes our overview of web accessibility and its principles, origins, and benefits. As we have said, this is far from a definitive analysis of accessibility. We would encourage any reader interested in the subject to perform additional research. Visiting the sites of the W3C, WAI, and/or WCAG would be an excellent place to start. At the very least, we hope the preceding article has opened readers’ eyes to the notion of accessibility. Given the importance of the subject, we hope that any business owners or web developers reading these words will take them to heart.
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