According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the internet represents a unique opportunity to use technology to provide unprecedented levels of access to written, audio, and video content to those suffering from disabilities. With the explosion of education, employment, government, business, healthcare, and entertainment services online, accessible website design is a critical issue and will determine whether disabled users have equal access to the services those without disabilities take for granted.
In some instances, the reasons for providing accessibility extend into the legal realm. For example, there are laws on the books requiring that every website developed or purchased by the U.S. federal government provide equal access for disabled persons. The UN has also created similar guidelines. Additionally, some websites are required by the courts to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and at this point, all educational institutions are advised to have an accessible website. In light of the benefits to the disabled made possible by the internet, as well as the legal ramifications that may face a website that fails to meet certain minimum accessibility standards, several organizations, including the W3C, have developed standards that website designers can apply to ensure that all visitors are able to gain use of the information and functionality of a website.
A website that is accessible is designed to function properly with assistive technologies so that the information and functionality that is fundamental to the website are made accessible to every visitor. In some cases, such as in the case of visual impairments, no assistive technologies are used. In short, according to the W3C, “web accessibility means people with disabilities can use the web” (source) regardless of the disability. Reaching that level of access is the goal of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which is the currently applicable standard from the W3C.
The W3C has pulled together resources that include stories of real web users, a search of the range of web users, and a discussion of the various ways users access the internet. Reviewing these resources will give you a clear picture of how people with disabilities use the internet. It’s also important to think about the components of web accessibility. While designers may be tempted to limit their accessibility mindset to the visual elements they design and the code they write, it’s important to understand the other pieces of the puzzle – particularly things like assistive technologies and software used to enhance accessibility – and how they should inform web design. The accessibility of websites produced by these different tools should be one of the criteria taken into consideration as authoring tools are selected.
Following the recommendations made in this document will help ensure that your website content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.