Much of the technology we take for granted was originally created for people who have
disabilities. The telephone, phonograph, plastic sipping lids
for your drive-through morning latte even e-mail
were first developed with disabled folks in mind.
But when Internet users with disabilities try
to navigate the information highway, they are
often thwarted by Web sites that aren't accessible to them.
In this article, I explain what accessibility is, why
it could be important to you, and how easy it is
to make your site accessible. I'll also point you
toward some resources (and fun tools) that can help you
in authoring for accessibility.
What is Web Site Accessibility?
We're talking here about building your Internet
or intranet site so everyone can use it, making sure
not to rule out anybody or any disabling condition.
Some of my Web site visitors have told me that they
are blind or have some vision loss; are deaf or hard
of hearing; have learning disabilities that make
reading difficult or impossible; or have limited mobility
and don't use a mouse or keyboard. Chances are some
of the people who visit your Web site have
disabilities too. Because of the relative anonymity the
Internet provides, you may never know how many users
with disabilities visit your site, or how many pass it by.
There are around 52 million people with
disabilities in the U.S. alone. A June 2000 Harris poll
revealed that 43 percent or roughly 22 million
were regular Web users. In the same poll, 48
percent of people with disabilities said the Internet had
significantly improved their quality of life,
compared with 27 percent of people without disabilities.
An estimated 8 to 10 percent of Web users
identify themselves as having a disability. That percentage
is likely to grow as we baby boomers age, and as
developing nations join the information revolution.
If you plan to do business with the federal
government, accessibility could be very important to
you. The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was
amended three years ago to ensure accessibility to
information technologies for all Americans. Under Section
508, all information-based products or services
purchased by the federal government after June 21, 2001
must be universally accessible. This includes fax
machines, phones, computers and Web sites.
The government's "carrot" is that if it is
shopping for goods or services, and yours is accessible,
they will consider doing business with you. The "stick"
is that users can file complaints with the Justice
Department against federal programs and contractors
that don't meet standards.
The federal government hopes the new guidelines will trickle down to local governments and the
private sector. The European Union, Australia and other countries have adopted similar standards.
If self-interest doesn't convince you, how
about this: it's the right thing to do. Let's face it;
people with disabilities already have a number of barriers
to being included. When you make your Web site,
your products, and your message more accessible to
them, you are also helping to empower them. It's one
of those win-win things.
How to Do It
Now that I have you convinced that accessibility is
a good idea, how do you go about making it happen?
It's not as tough as you might think. And it
doesn't mean going back to the Stone Age of HTML
design. A lot has to do with simply being aware of this
audience when developing, expanding, or
maintaining your site.
When you are considering the colors of your
text, background, and graphics, think in terms of
contrast. Could a person who is colorblind, has blurred
vision, or eyestrain easily make out the words on the
screen? How easy would it be, for example, for a person
with some vision problems to read purple text on a
It is also a good idea to stay away from
displaying information based on color only. Coloring
certain items in a column blue to mean one thing and
others green to mean something else could be a problem
for people who are colorblind (not to mention for
black and white monitors or PDAs).
Understand Screen Readers
A growing number of people do not read in the
traditional sense either because they have some
degree of blindness, learning disability, or mobility
limitation and use computer programs that turn
on-screen text into an electronic synthesized voice.
Screen reading programs navigate one line at a time, left to right, and top to bottom. Knowing
this can be helpful when designing an on-line form,
for instance. Placing a descriptive label for each
field above or to the left, rather than below or to the
right, can save a lot of confusion.
By knowing about screen readers, you can also
prioritize what's on your page, and put the most
important stuff toward the top and left.
Know that ALT Tags Are Your Friends
When screen readers go through your site, they
only read text and usually skip graphics and images
altogether (including pictures of words). This is
where alternate text (ALT) can be handy. You are
probably already somewhat familiar with this tag. The
ALT text is displayed sometimes when you place a
mouse over an image. It is also what screen readers
"read" when they get to that image. So it helps when
the ALT tag describes the image.
When writing ALT tags, think about the picture you want to paint in the mind of someone who
might listen to you describe the image over the phone.
If the description is too lengthy, you can provide a
link to another page that has the descriptive text. You
can use ALT or TITLE tags on links as well.
Create Text-Only Pages
If you are stumped at how to make a feature
accessible, try a text-only page. Some sites take care of
the whole accessibility issue by having a mirror site
that contains text-only or no frames pages that are
linked from the main home page. Text-only pages can
be quick and easy to build.
If you are using streaming video or audio,
remember some of your visitors may be deaf, hard of hearing,
or don't have sound on their computer systems. If
you can't provide captions, try adding a transcript on
the same page or linking to another page that includes the full text.
Resources and Tools
Plenty of Web accessibility resources are
available. Here are a handful of my favorites:
- The Web Accessibility Initiative develops the
accessibility guidelines that are considered the
standard by many governments and organizations: http://www.w3.org/WAI
- Bobby is a free service that helps Web
developers identify and repair accessibility barriers.
Simply type the URL of the page you want reviewed,
or download a free utility to test your entire site.
If you pass the test, you get to place a cool
"Bobby Approved" button on your site:
- The U.S. General Services Administration
keeps federal agencies and contractors of
information technologies up-to-date on Section 508:
- Federal Computer Week also keeps track of
news related to Section 508: http://www.fcw.com/topic.asp?topic=accessibility
- JAWS for Windows lets you to download a
free demo of its screen reader program so you can
see for yourself how it works and how your site
looks to it. http://www.freedomscientific.com/fs_downloads/jaws.asp
Now that you know the importance of universal accessibility, and have these simple tips and
tools available, you too can help include people with
disabilities in the daily life of your on-line community.