Making the Web Accessible to Everyone

It wouldn’t be right if you built a store without wheelchair access and you’d probably be breaking the law. But most web sites are designed with little or no accommodation for the disabled, effectively locking out millions of people.

One of the previous decade’s proudest moments was the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against individuals based on disability and holds businesses accountable for making sure that people with disabilities are not denied goods or services.

But the web continues to discriminate. People with a wide range of disabilities, such as blindness or the inability to use a mouse, find much of the web inaccessible and are thus denied full benefit from the information that should be available, equally, to everyone.

There are many good reasons why every company needs to make sure its web site is made accessible. Here are some:

  • If your site is inaccessible, you are probably losing money. According to government statistics, 14.5 percent of the population in the United States has some kind of disability. Consumers with disabilities control more than $175 billion in discretionary income. Why shut out some of your best customers?

  • Web sites that can’t be used by people with disabilities might be breaking the law. AOL recently settled a lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind, promising to take steps to make its software and web offering usable for people who can’t see. Many legal experts believe that the ADA applies to the web and that enforcement is only a matter of time.
  • Making your web site accessible to devices that disabled people use to surf the Internet is an exercise in next-generation design. Designing for devices like Braille readers makes your site more accessible on other platforms, like wireless devices. And it paves the way to designing for platform-neutral standards, like XML.

Web designers are often criticized for letting glitz and style get in the way of usability. But what is most distressing is that most web designers are ignorant of the guidelines and simple steps that can make most web content accessible to people who are blind, who don’t use the keyboard or mouse, or who otherwise don’t interact with web sites the way people without disabilities do.

The good news is that it is easy to get guidelines on building an accessible web site. The Web Accessibility Initiative Standard (WAI), from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), provides a checklist and specific implementation instructions to optimize accessibility.

The WAI guidelines provides a set of high-priority guidelines to inform the site-design process. Most are simple and painless. For example, pictures on a web site should be labeled so that users who can’t see the picture can decipher what the picture is all about.

Every web designer, information architect, project manager anyone involved in the development of a web site needs to become familiar with accessibility issues. The following are great resources for learning about designing for people with disabilities:

WebABLE is a comprehensive directory of resources regarding the issues of the disabled and the Internet.

The AWARE Center links directly to the WAI guidelines and is a great place to get updated information on designing accessible sites.

The Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin has great information about alternative browsing methods and links to the web accessibility community.

Web accessibility isn’t only about designing new sites. Sites currently on the web can be adapted to meet accessibility guidelines, making them more usable for disabled people.

As this industry matures, we have to take responsibility for contributing to a world where everyone has equal access to the opportunity that the web provides. Let us educate ourselves on how to make the web accessible to everyone.

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