Accessibility has always been about equal opportunity. Wheelchair ramps and sidewalk curb cuts and are common modifications that increase accessibility to buildings and crosswalks. Closed captioning was added to television broadcasting to give the hearing-impaired the same information that’s spoken on a given program. Braille signage allows a visually impaired person to access the same public information as a sighted person. If we think about our increased reliance on the Web for information, we need to make sure that information is accessible across-the-board as well.
Web Accessibility Overview
Web accessibility means making sure people with disabilities can access and understand content on the Web. It means that people with visual and auditory impairments; physical and motor limitations; and speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities are able to access information. Sometimes users with physical limitations achieve this by tabbing instead of using a mouse to access and navigate Web content. Visually impaired users may increase text sizes on their computers and browsers, or they may need screen-reader software to announce the content and operating system processes. In most cases, the tools are readily available for implementing accessibility.
The Three Components of Web Accessibility
You have probably given much thought to the voice, tone, and delivery of your content. Maybe you even hired a copywriter. But there’s something else to consider: How accessible is your content? Can someone who is unable to use a mouse access the tooltips on your website without a mouseover effect? Will people with visual impairments be able to skim down the headings on each page to find what the content they want to read?
Web accessibility does not only refer to accessing content on websites or having “alt” tags for images. It encompasses a much broader spectrum of interacting with and contributing to the Web. There are three main components to web accessibility: authoring tools, web content, and user agents. These three components work together to make the Web accessible.
- Authoring tools are the software that creates websites. Web developers use authoring tools and evaluation tools to create content for the Web. Content management systems, WYSIWYG editors, courseware tools, and other programming environments fall into this category.
- Web content is the information on Web pages or Web applications. Content includes text, graphics, podcasts, videos, documents, and the code or markup that defines how the page is rendered to the user.
- User agents are the tools people use to get and interact with Web content. These include web browsers, media players, document readers, and assistive technologies.
Guidelines have been developed for each of these components. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) explain how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities. Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) explain how to make the web authoring tools themselves accessible, allowing people with disabilities to create web content. ATAG also helps authors create more accessible web content. User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) explain how to make user agents like web browsers and media players accessible to people with disabilities.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Improve Access to Information
There are many ways to incorporate accessibility when building websites and uploading content to the Web.
- Define text sizes as relative (not absolute) units. This allows a person’s own browser settings to control text size.
- Enable non-mouse interaction methods. Rollover effects need keyboard alternatives.
- Use colors wisely. Don’t use only color to convey meaning. Color blind users cannot tell what is being conveyed by the colors. Include another way to designate meaning.
- Include alternate text for every graphic element that conveys information. “Black bar” is not a meaningful graphical element if it’s just adding background color to a navbar.
- Provide alternative formats of multimedia content, such as transcripts and descriptive text.
- Separate content from presentation. If we removed all the styles, color, and layout, would the website content still make sense?
- Allow users to override site styles. This includes text size, contrast, and anything else that can be modified on an end-user’s device.
- Develop a well-organized site structure. Utilize hierarchical headings and subheadings.
How Accessibility Features Built into a Site Enhance Usability
Many assistive technologies rely on and work with accessibility features built into websites. Users who tab through structural elements need a well-organized site structure for navigation. Visually impaired users need hierarchically structured headings to skim down sections of a website. Without headings or sections, a person using screen reader software can’t navigate as easily. Where sighted users may skim to the next visual break, VI users rely on headings and HTML5 semantic elements to do the same.
Assistive Technology (AT) and Adaptive Strategies
Many devices and strategies are employed to facilitate web and computer access:
- screen reader software
- screen magnification devices
- refreshable Braille displays
- voice recognition software
- speech synthesis
- scanning software
- alternative pointers and switches
- modified keyboards and track balls
- access keys
- tabbing through structural elements
An Accessible Web Benefits Everyone
Web accessibility also benefits people without disabilities. The flexibility offered by accessible web design allows greater access to content by users with mobile devices, limited Internet bandwidth, and browsers with scripts and styles disabled. Accessible websites are standards-compliant and more likely to be supported by new devices and user agents.
Accessibility is essential to ensure people with disabilities can participate equally on the Web. It’s important for businesses to avoid excluding people from using their sites and accessing their content. It is required by Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act in many cases. Designing and building accessibly is crucial for anyone who works on websites, creates content, or designs tools to access them. It is inclusive and non-discriminatory, which makes it a best practice for all.
There are many high-quality articles and tutorials written about how to make your website and web content accessible.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
The W3C’s site has just about everything you need to know about web accessibility:
Web Accessibility In Mind
This website provides links to tools, resources, guidelines, checklists, and articles on accessibility:
The official GSA Government-wide Section 508 Accessibility Program website:
United States Access Board Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology
The U.S. Access Board published a comprehensive set of standards in 2000:
This is a community-driven site that offers web developer documentation on accessibility in a reader-friendly manner: