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ATPM 10.01
January 2004


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Web Accessibility

by Raena Armitage,

Part 1

If you’re making a dollar or two as a Web designer, sooner or later somebody’s going to ask you about Web accessibility. They might ask you to make a site for them that complies with the appropriate laws in your region. They might be doing it because they know it’s dumb business sense to ignore the needs of around 20% of the population. They may be doing this because they heard about it from somebody important-sounding, or they might even think it’s just the right thing to do.

Here at ATPM, we’ve discussed Web accessibility in a previous issue—briefly covering the general areas of various assistive technologies that some people use, some of the people who use them, and some of the techniques you can use to make your Web site that much better. This time, we’ll be going a little further in-depth with a series of articles that addresses why Web accessibility matters, and some practical tips you can apply to your Web sites right now.

First, however, we’re going to discuss why this is so important, debunk a few myths, and explore some of the barriers to access that people experience every day on the Web.

Who Exactly Are We Talking About Here?

If you’re like me, you’re in pretty decent health, with good eyesight and good hearing. You don’t have any cognitive or learning issues, you have the full range of motor skills, and you’re fluent in the local tongue. You’re reasonably well educated, and you’re pretty good at using the computer. Most of the people you meet every day are more or less like you, and nothing much gets in your way.

If that sounds like you, it can be easy to forget that there are a lot of people in the community who aren’t like this—and some of these people are those who have trouble using your Web site. And sure, if you think about it, you can name a few groups of people who come to mind almost instantly. We covered some of those groups in our earlier article, so let’s quickly recap what we learned there:

  • People with a visual impairment have difficulties with text and graphic elements. They can use assistive technologies such as screen magnifiers, screen readers, and text-to-speech, or simply change a few settings in their operating system, such as their screen resolution. Some—not many, but some—can use a refreshable Braille panel, using an array of raised pins to turn text into characters.
  • People with a learning or cognitive disability have difficulties with text, language, concentration, or spatial reasoning. They might also use screen readers or different color schemes to make things a little easier for them to understand. Some people with these kinds of disabilities may simply need to spend a little more time reading your text, or rely more on explanatory images.
  • People who are deaf or hard-of-hearing find problems when there’s no visual information to augment or substitute audio and video content. They can get a lot of benefit from captioned media content, or a text or visual alternative. Since the Web is largely such a visual and textual medium, their issues in that regard are a lot less restricting than the visually impaired’s—but this won’t always be the case, as the use of multimedia is growing steadily.
  • People with a motor disability have difficulties with using a regular mouse or keyboard, and can’t always rely on skills that require dexterity or speed. Sometimes the tools they use are as simple as an extra-large trackball or keyboard; some use more specialized hardware or software.

These are, more or less, the broadly defined groups of people whose disability can cause problems with accessing your Web site.

For the disabled, the Web can offer unprecedented opportunities. For the visually impaired, technology that changes text into speech right now is a vast improvement over having to wait for an audio tape or a family member to read that text aloud. Being able to browse through a favorite magazine or catalog online, without the trouble of handling or reading books and print, can be exceptionally useful for the motor impaired. It’s a waste of a great medium when so many barriers are in place, and even worse when the barriers are there through a simple lack of planning or consideration.

It’s estimated by various sources that between ten and twenty percent of the population have a disability that impairs their use of a computer. Of course, not all of that twenty percent are using the Web to begin with, and not all of those who do use the Web need to do anything particularly different or unusual.

What’s often overlooked, however, is that there are plenty of people whose circumstances aren’t so obvious, and they have various requirements that can be helped by some careful attention to Web accessibility.

  • There are still Web newbies. While everyone’s heard of this Web thing, and maybe given it a spin at a friend or family member’s house, there are still people whose first experience with the Web is happening right now. Some of the vagaries of the online world can be confusing; things like jargon and technical questions escape them. Why isn’t my Back button working? What’s a plug-in? Where did my buttons go? Should I click this icon?
  • Not everyone who accesses your Web site speaks your language with the same fluency as you do—and not everyone is as well-educated, either. Reading complex language can be just as much a barrier to these people as it is to newbies or the learning-disabled.
  • Plenty of people are using the Web with older, slower, or generally less fabulous technology. It’s not uncommon to find schools using slow old machines with Windows 95, or people in rural areas who only have the choice of dialup or ISDN connections. They really don’t have the time to download your delightful 6 MB Flash presentation, and your fancy JavaScript navigation menus might make their old browser crash down hard. They may well be surfing with images off to save bandwidth.
  • On the flip side, of course, are people fortunate enough to have access to all the latest technology, happy to surf the Web using their mobile telephones, Pocket PCs, Palm handhelds, or other mobile devices. They may be using their cell phone as a modem, or piggybacking on the WiFi hotspot down the street. While it’s unlikely that this is their only means of Internet access, alternative devices are becoming more and more prevalent.

While these people aren’t disabled, their situation or their technological constraints mean that accessibility features are a big help to them. Combine these people with the disabled portion of your readership, and all of a sudden there’s a pretty big wedge of the pie that you ought to start thinking about.

What Do I Get From Accessibility?

There are a number of reasons why accessibility ought to matter to you. The first one I’ll mention shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but I’ll go right ahead and do it anyway: it’s the right thing to do. There is no acceptable reason why you should actively exclude anyone with a disability from your Web site, in much the same way as there’s no good reason why you should exclude women, Jews, or senior citizens.

In many places, it’s also illegal to exclude the disabled online as well as in a place of business. In most cases that means you need to be providing access right now, not waiting until somebody asks or complains. The anti-discrimination laws in several countries are fairly clear on this matter: unless there’s a really good reason (referred to as an undue “hardship” or “burden”), it is not OK to exclude anyone on the basis of their disability.

You’ve probably heard about a few high-profile cases where companies or organizations have already found that the law doesn’t tolerate online discrimination, such as the 2000 Sydney Olympics Web site, or AOL. In both cases, the organizations had to make significant changes to their product, and in the Olympic case damages had to be paid.

If an appeal to your social sensibilities or the threat of a lawsuit still doesn’t sway you, consider this: it’s good for you, too. You’ll be adding useful skills to your Web technique by learning how this can be done, which is a good thing to sell to clients, especially government agencies or organizations that have an accessibility requirement.

You’re adding value to your Web site, making it a richer experience all round—your sites will be all the more robust and feature-packed for it, especially when you remember that there are plenty of non-disabled people who get benefit from some attention to accessibility. If nothing else, you get to bask in the glow of knowing that you’re doing it properly, unlike all those talentless hacks you’re competing against.

Myths Debunked

You might be thinking that since the number of disabled people online is so small, it isn’t worth it to you. You might also think that they’re not part of your target market. Right? Well, wrong. If your Web site were a physical place of business, would you randomly prevent one in a hundred people from coming in your front door, for no good reason at all? Would you refuse their business? If you did, you’d be crazy. And if you know for sure that disabled people aren’t part of your Web site’s market at all, you might want to think about why this is so. Could it be that you’re turning them away?

There really is no good reason why you should be preventing access to your Web site, because it really isn’t that hard to be a little more inclusive. It’s true that there are few people online who have a disability that seriously impairs their use of your Web site, but it helps to think about it in a less abstract term than ‘one percent’ or ‘five percent.’ Translate those figures into solid numbers: if your Web site gets 75,000 unique visitors a month, and if we operate on the conservative assumption that the applicable figures are only about 1%, that’s around 750 people who might not be getting your message. Add the folks we mentioned earlier who are using older machines or aren’t so technically savvy, and now the number gets even bigger.

If you’re still happy to let them go, well, that’s your loss. They’ll probably come across your competitor’s site and use that instead.

Oh, wait—you don’t want them to move on to your competitor’s site? Then it looks like now’s the time to change your tune, sparky.

You may believe that it’s time-consuming and costly to build accessibility features into your site—not so. While it’s true that adding accessibility after the fact can be an expensive affair, doing it properly from the outset adds only a small amount to the initial cost of your site. Most of the time, you won’t have to do anything significantly different; it’s just a matter of adding features.

To use the Olympic example, the Sydney Olympic Committee claimed that refitting their huge, expensive site would cost $AUD 2.2 million. Several expert witnesses called foul on that one, suggesting it might be closer to $AUD 30,000 or so, and also asserted that the cost of building an accessible site in the first place would have increased their budget by no more than 2%. The lesson we learn from this is easy: get it right the first time around, and it won’t come back to bite you in the butt later. The benefit of spending a little extra money is that you’ll be able to gain and retain the business of those 750 people we mentioned earlier.

If you’re concerned about having to fix up an existing site, don’t panic. Nobody is suggesting that you have to rush out now and unveil an accessible site by this time next week—it’s perfectly OK to make changes in little steps. If you’re planning a redesign soon, maybe you should think about including it into that project. If you’re using a content management system, aim to fix up a template every couple of weeks. Before you know it, it’ll all be done.

You might think that creating accessible content is hard to do, and you can’t be bothered learning. Bzzt, wrong answer! Unless you’re a Web developer in a big design house with lots of little interns and minions to do your bidding, you shouldn’t rely on the luxury of having someone else do it for you. Building basic accessibility into your site is simple. HTML has plenty of methods for accessibility and redundancy, allowing for text equivalents to images and so on—you’re probably using some of them already. Many common authoring tools and content management systems make the process incredibly easy, while various online services such as Cynthia Says can automatically check it for compliance with various accessibility standards.

You may believe that using accessibility features means that the aesthetic of your site needs to suffer, or that you can’t use the fun stuff like Flash or QuickTime—not so, despite what some people like to advocate. The point is not really to create ‘equal’ access in the sense that everyone must have exactly the same experience with your Web site, because frankly that just isn’t possible. The point is simply to include as many people as you can by providing friendly alternatives and showing a little consideration.

There’s no need to throw away all your rich-media stuff and replace it with boring old text. The trick is to make sure that your site doesn’t rely on the fancy stuff to get your message across. For example, you can keep your Flash navigation menu and provide an accessible alternative by having a text menu someplace. You can provide as many video or audio interviews as you like, but provide a transcript as well.

Put simply, it’s not generally a hardship to turn your Web site into an accessible, inclusive medium, and if you’re a Web developer you already have most of the skills you need to get started now. What are you waiting for?

What Now?

Now that you’ve heard a few reasons why it’s time to get started with accessibility, as well as who you’ll be accommodating, you’ve just accomplished one of the biggest steps towards creating a more accessible Web—and that’s actually knowing a little about it in the first place. This is by no means a comprehensive or all-enclosing article, however, and the links at the end of this article are a good start to learning more about accessibility and the people who’ll benefit from your efforts.

Next month, we’ll start discussing some actual techniques you can use on your Web site to make it more accessible. If you can’t wait until then, you’ll find great starting points by visiting the following sites.


The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative provides guidelines and information on creating more accessible Web sites. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are often used as a benchmark for companies and organizations wishing to achieve a particular level of accessibility, and are specifically referenced in some legal discussions on the matter. If you’re new to this topic, the Getting Started section is a great place to begin. provides information with a focus on United States law surrounding accessibility and technology. They also provide guidelines and standards for compliance with s.508, and provide training for aspects of s.508 compliance.

The Australian Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes and JILT’s discussion of the United Kingdom’s Disability Discrimination Act provide useful information on the legal requirements in those respective countries.

Mark Pilgrim’s series Dive Into Accessibility approaches accessibility from the perspective of a weblog author, and provides some interesting case studies that reflect the way disabled people actually use the Web.

Joe Clark’s book Building Accessible Web sites was recently serialized on the Web. It contains just about everything you’ll find in the printed book, with links to referenced articles.

WebAIM is frequently updated with timely and informative articles for those interested in accessibility. It also hosts a busy e-mail discussion list, where you can talk about accessibility issues with other Web developers.

Don’t forget ATPM’s previous article on this topic, Putting Curb Cuts and Wider Doors on the Internet: Toward Web Site Accessibility. It’s a great introduction to some of the techniques you’ll be using to make your Web site more accessible, and it’s packed with even more useful links to accessibility information.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (3)

Richard Kemp · January 4, 2004 - 11:49 EST #1
At last, I can explode !
Some websites are totally Horrible ! Text @ the lowest size imaginable, with 70% of the remainder of the page is "white space" containing ZERO ! Copy and paste to a word processor, plus make all bold solves the problem.
Colors in background, with text a "slightly different" color choice, makes it almost impossible to tead. (contrast)= NONE.
Graphics size, less than 2 inches, leaves zoomed picture, a blotch of, "ill defined pixels". Again a waste of time to enjoy.
Web Creators in ages below 45 years have no idea how we older people, STRUGGLE with vision.

I suggested one site to increased the size of type, and use up more of the "white space", was ignored. Oh Hum !
Thanks for the soapbox .... Rich
Raena Armitage (ATPM Staff) · January 7, 2004 - 12:26 EST #2
I'm sorry to hear you had so much trouble, Rich. A later article will be addressing the use of text. Hopefully, some of those younger designers will take notice. ;)
Ali Mohd · August 8, 2005 - 09:48 EST #3
i have surff the net for couple of days looking for some information that will support my research topic . i would like to refer to u in my paper , thanks

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