Web Accessibility Overview and Resources

By Jeff Coburn, National Service Inclusion Project

What is an “accessible website”?
An accessible website allows all users to read, interact, and exchange information with the website, regardless of abilities or disabilities. For example, speech (or voice) recognition is used by people with some physical disabilities or temporary injuries instead of hands as an input method.

What is an “inaccessible website”?
An inaccessible website uses technologies or techniques that make it difficult or impossible for anyone with a disability to access information on a website. Example: For persons with blindness, video that is not described in text or audio.

Why should my website be accessible?
Your website should be accessible for many reasons, but the most important of those is inclusion. Every person should have access to whatever service you provide without any undue difficulties. Other reasons to make your website accessible may be:

  • Legal (sections 504 and 508 or W3C).
  • To increase your audience—the estimated prevalence rate of working-age (25 to 61) civilians with a disability in the U.S. is 7.8 percent (Cornell University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Economic Research on Employment Policy for Persons with Disabilities).
  • To make your site more usable for emerging technologies.

What guidelines or laws should I be following?
There are major law/policy bodies helping make the web more accessible. Organizations that receive funding from state or federal governments are required to provide reasonable access to all aspects of services and materials, including Web-based information, programs and services in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and state law. Organizations may want to use Section 508 as a guideline (www.section508.gov). Others may wish to follow the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org/WAI/). By adhering to either one of these, an accessible website should result. The W3C has more documentation and tends to evolve with technology faster; Section 508 is legally required for some government entities.

What do I need to start making my website accessible?
Not much—just get your toolbox in order and dive in headfirst. All you should need is a good textbook, a text editor software program, and an Internet connection. There are a number of good books out now on accessible web development (see the list at www.uiaccess.com/books.html). Get your hands on one and spend a few days with it getting familiar with the concepts, then use the book as a reference throughout the project. Then grab your text editor—Notepad (for PCs) or SimpleText (for Macs) will do fine. Most accessibility work will be done within the actual html code; so don’t be daunted by the thought of getting your hands dirty. When you get really stumped, try searching Google Groups (www.deja.com); chances are somebody has already asked and answered any question you have. Lastly, try running any pages you make through a Lynx text-only browser (one can be found at www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html). This will give you an idea of what the page might look like in an alternative browser or with screen reader software.

Web accessibility is a relatively new concept in web development. The myth is that in order to be “accessible” one must strip out all the bells and whistles from a website. This is not true. Almost any technology (with some exceptions) can be used as long as it is implemented properly and provides alternatives when necessary. For instance, graphics and images can be used on a site as long as they include “alt tags” that give descriptions for what the images are conveying. Audio and video footage can be included on websites as long as a transcript of the footage is provided. Advanced web-building technologies like CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) can dramatically improve a site’s accessibility when implemented correctly. The bottom line is that by following a few basic guidelines, one can easily build a website that is fulfilling to most every sector of the audience.

Following are a few key guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to take into consideration, followed by some web resources. For complete guidelines and checklist, visit www.w3.org/WAI/.

  • Images and animations. Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual element.
  • Image maps. Use client-side map and text for hotspots.
  • Multimedia. Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.
  • Hypertext links. Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid “click here.”
  • Page organization. Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.
  • Graphs and charts. Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.
  • Scripts, applets, and plug-ins. Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or not supported.
  • Frames. Use the noframes element and meaningful titles.
  • Tables. Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize.
  • Check your work. Validate with the tools, checklist, and guidelines at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/.

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