Definition: Web accessibility refers to the practice of making pages on the Internet accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities.
For people with disabilities the Web provides tools that open new horizons, and gives access to information that used to be a burden to get to before. Many people wrongly assume that Web accessibility refers solely to creating websites accessible for blind users, but nothing could be further away from the truth.
The Web is the main channel to provide free information in real time for all print disabled users.
Print disabled refers to blind, visually impaired, illiterate, dyslexic, mentally retarded and people with other physical and medical conditions that make it difficult to read printed materials.
The print disabled public has the same right to access information as the members of the general public. Braille publications are not really accessible and their cost usually exceeds the price of a traditional printed publications. Besides, they are bulky and time-consuming to produce. They can be read solely by Braille literates and that makes it even more difficult for those who become impaired after an accident to access the information (as they’d have to learn Braille first).
People who cannot hold a publication because of physical impairment face problems similar to the visually impaired.
As the International community becomes more and more aware of the importance of creating accessible education channels for all, including challenged users, the Web community, as one of the holders of the greatest informational and educational channels ever known to man, has a duty to comply.
It is just a matter of time before regulations like Section 508 will become mandatory at all levels, for all websites, internationally.
As a matter of fact, many countries already have such laws and regulations that apply for government and public sector websites.
However, since the Web is open source and the traffic is not restricted to a certain physical territory, the need for Web standards to create accessible websites is today stronger than ever.
The Web is a network of websites interconnected through links. For the general public, finding a website online is not such a difficult task: one link leads to another site, and to another, and to another.
Browsers have buttons that serve different purposes (navigating backwards and forwards, bookmarking and so on) and that are visible and relatively easy to use. But users suffering from certain disabilities don’t browse the Web the same way that the general public does. They use special software and devices that cannot run properly unless the websites they need to read have no accessibility borders.
Some people who cannot use a mouse or a keyboard will use special hardware like head sticks or mouth sticks. Then there are others who cannot use a mouse because of tremors or motor control problems.
Blind people use screen readers to access information and so do people who are challenged in reading for a variety of other reasons.
People with poor eyesight need to increase the font size to read the page properly. This isn’t limited to visually impaired people. It can also effect people who are older than 40 who have difficulties focusing up close.
Deaf people need to read a text transcript of videos and audio clips such as news.
All these people are not a minority. There are millions of people who need to access the Web and find themselves in front of pages that make the use of the Web a burden.
Fixing these issues for the people with disabilities benefits the entire Web community, including the healthy users and the people without real medical disabilities.
Accessible websites are generally usable sites that can be seen in any browser, with any type of device, on any bandwidth and so on.
Creating accessible websites doesn’t just help people with challenges. It also helps your website improve its rankings in the search engines.
Accessibility and Search Engine Optimization
Many accessibility fixes are also SEO recommendations:
- write logical, clear page titles
- write logical, descriptive ALT attributes (for images)
- use text instead of images to display important information, content or links.
- correct/validate your HTML
- keep the number of the links on a given page (whether internal, outbound or navigation) as low as possible: there are different opinions here, ranging from 20 links up to (but not more than) 100.
- create a sitemap for the users
- check your site with a text browser (aDesigner from IBM is a very good simulator).
Not everyone has enough HTML and CSS programming skills to create an accessible website, but I feel it is my duty to encourage you to hire a Web developer who can do the job.
Even small business websites should focus on accessibility and standards compliance. After all it’s the purpose of each business owner to create the best environment for his/her clients in addition to offering the best products. Because, let’s face it, if you don’t present your products in the proper environment they will go unnoticed, and then all the search engine rankings in the world will do you no good.