Accessibility – Not All Web Sites Created Equal

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The Web is increasingly becoming an important resource in many areas of life including education, employment, government, commerce, health care, recreation, and more. What you may or may not realize is that not all web sites are created equal, at least when it comes to access for people with various forms of physical and cognitive disabilities. You can think of an inaccessible web site as a building without wheelchair ramps, doorways that are too narrow for wheelchairs to fit through, water fountains that are too high, and elevator buttons with no Braille labels. It’s hard to imagine a public building without these basic features these days (in fact, it’s generally illegal in the US not to have them) but this is not yet true for web sites.

Unlike physical buildings, it is not always obvious if a web site is accessible simply by looking at it. For those who design, develop, own, or manage a web site – here is a simple rule. If you are not aware of and are actively addressing web accessibility issues, your web site is most likely not easily accessible to a large and growing percentage of the population.

Now if you are reading this and are thinking, “Hey, everyone I know who uses my web site is young and healthy”, think again. A 1997 report by the U.S. Census Bureau categorized 19.7 percent of the United States population as having some sort of disability. This number includes people with visual, hearing, cognitive, and motor impairments which may require some adaptive technology to read or access web sites (i.e. – scalable font sizes, high contrast viewing options, screen reader access, etc). What’s more, as the population ages, the proportion of people with disabilities grows higher. In fact, almost 55 percent of the population older than 65 have some form of disability (see Table 1).

TABLE 1. PREVALENCE OF DISABILITY BY AGE: 1997
Age Total Number With Disability Percent with Disability
All Ages 267,665,000 52,596,000 19.7%
Under 15 years 59,606,000 4,661,000 7.8%
15 to 24 years 36,897,000 3,961,000 10.7%
25 to 44 years 83,887,000 11,200,000 13.4%
45 to 54 years 33,620,000 7,585,000 22.6%
55 to 64 years 21,591,000 7,708,000 35.7%
65 years and over 32,064,000 17,480,000 54.5%

Resources: U.S. Census Bureau: Americans with Disabilities (PDF)

Thus, in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities it is essential that both web designers and business owners understand and take an active role in the accessibility of their web sites. If you do not, you are simply locking people out of your site.

How do you begin to address web accessibility issues?
Thankfully, The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has put together a number of documents to help both web developers and business owners to understand accessibility issues and accessibility rules to incorporate into the design and development of new and existing web sites. Here are some articles to get you started:

I hope this article has at least started you thinking about web accessibility issues. Of course, there is an important difference between “accessibility” and “usability”. It is possible to follow all accessibility rules and create a web site with poor usability. Revisiting our original physical building example, a technically “accessible” building might have a wheelchair ramp halfway around the building by the loading dock. A both "accessible" and “usable” (friendly) building would have short wheelchair ramps and wide doorways at the main entry. This concept very much applies to web site design as my direct work with LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has taught me, but more on usability in a future post.