Equal-Access Site Design

As Internet penetration levels grow throughout the world and the medium becomes increasingly mainstream, a broader, more diverse range of people are going online. For some (like this column’s readers), the Web is already an integral part of daily life. For others, the digital channel’s benefits cannot be fully experienced. Those less-able members of society, with some form of physical or mental impairment, still find “access denied.” A variety of barriers impede their participation.

This was vividly brought to light recently here in the U.K. An investigation conducted by the U.K. Disability Rights Commission (DRC) found 81 percent of Web sites fail to achieve the lowest-level (“A”) standard as laid down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Key problems include inappropriate use of colors and graphics, text too small to read, confusing navigation, and incompatibility with accessibility software.

By no means is this problem restricted to the U.K. It pervades the global Web. Despite the tangible and intangible benefits of an all-inclusive approach to Web design, the vast majority of site owners disregard the less-able members of their audiences.

By facilitating access for those with sensory, cognitive, and mobility difficulties (often a larger proportion of the population than expected), site owners can potentially enjoy a number of benefits. They can increase visitor numbers through wider audience reach and improved search engine listings due to the indirect effect of improved robot friendliness. They can improve conversion rates through simpler design and faster page download times. They can achieve greater site flexibility for adoption onto different browsers and mobile platforms, and improved back-end operational efficiencies can help save time and money. Furthermore, demonstrating an ethical and responsible approach to business by adopting accessibility shines a positive light on a company’s brand and reputation.

By 2009, 40 percent of seniors (ages 65 and up) will be online, up from 14 percent in late 2003. As the Internet reaches a wider demographic and businesses increasingly use the Web as a primary contact point, those providing services online must consider accessibility more seriously.

In addition to these driving factors, there’s growing legal imperative to conform to standards. Within the U.K., the DRC is threatening legal action against businesses that don’t conform to the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 by October 2004. We can expect a growing, worldwide backlash from disability rights groups in coming years. They’ll fight to be included in the digital revolution.

Accessibility is a measure of how easy it is for people of all abilities to browse a Web site’s content. A well-designed site is built understanding the limitations some visitors contend with and removes barriers that may prevent them enjoying a full experience. Though usability takes a commonsense approach to site design to ensure content and instructions are easily interpretable, accessibility should take this a step further. Site owners should make site content readable by disability-assisting software, such as text-to-speech readers, like browsealoud and JAWS, and testing tools, like Watchfire’s Bobby 5.0.

Design, look, and feel will tend toward simplicity with clear navigation, straightforward page structures, and easily readable text. However, this doesn’t necessarily impose limitations on visuals or brand identity, nor does it preclude use of rich media. Well-designed graphics and multimedia elements, judiciously applied and clearly signposted, can be a positive aid to using and understanding Web sites.

The time, resources, and budget required to achieve compliance will depend on current site construction, access to disabled usability testers, and the level of design and implementation expertise available to the organization. Site owners should consider accessibility as early as possible in the development process. Those without in-house expertise should look primarily to WAI guidelines when devising site architecture. Seek out usability experts, and request guidance from national disability institutions, especially those representing the blind and partially sighted.

All Web site owners must eventually consider accessibility. Although public sector, government-run Web sites are waking up to the issue now, many private sector, mass-market online providers will find the issue creeping onto their agendas sooner rather than later. The degree and rate of accessibility implementation will depend on brand, audience, and return on investment (ROI) considerations. Certain sectors, such as financial services, e-commerce, and healthcare sites, as well as portals and ISPs, should make accessibility a near-term priority.

When approaching accessibility, Web site owners should assess the costs and benefits attached to redevelopment relative to the markets they serve, target audience profiles, and their corporate and brand values.

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