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Accessible Web design - a definition

© 2016 by Chuck Letourneau, Starling Access Services
First published: 1998. Modified: 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009, 2016

What does "Web accessibility" mean? To me it means that anyone using any kind of Web browsing technology must be able to visit any site and get a full and complete understanding of the information contained there, as well as have the full and complete ability to interact with the site.

And, yes, I know there are circumstances under which meeting these conditions would be difficult and even (seemingly) impossible. But difficulty shouldn't preclude effort and a barrier that seems impassable when viewed from one perspective might be reduced or eliminated when seen from another.

Some definitions


By "anyone" I mean every person regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of ability - from people having the full range of sensory, motor, intellectual and educational skills to those who have one or more limitations in those areas. The page author should raise no barriers that prevent people from getting and understanding the information on their Web site.

Any Web browsing technology

By "any Web browsing technology" I refer to the complete range of current and legacy technology such as mainstream graphical browsers, text-only browsers, and specialty browsers for people with blindness. The Web can also be browsed with emerging technologies like mobile computing systems (used hands-free and eyes-free), pocket-size display units (like smart-phones), or other small, non-graphical input and output devices.

Any site

By "any site" I mean every site. Every site on the Web is presumably there to be seen by somebody. In very few cases does the page author know who will be looking at the page, with what technology, or with what abilities or limitations. To me it makes a great deal of sense to maximize the accessibility of any site to ensure that no potential customer, client, or visitor is excluded.

Full and complete understanding

Barriers to "full and complete understanding" are many but some are easier to overcome than others. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

The language barrier:

Many Web sites are available in only one language, usually the first language of the author. This tends to exclude a large number of potential visitors who cannot read or understand that language. You could have your site translated professionally into many language, or assume that visitors will use on-line automatic translation sites. But even with the use of automatic language translation programs the content of many Web pages will be confusing to some visitors because the translations are not perfect... especially if you use lots of jargon (or local idioms).

The jargon barrier:

Even assuming a visitor is viewing a page written in their native language there is no guarantee that full understanding will follow. What might the average person get from a site devoted to the scholarly discussion of quantum field theory? The words may be English, but the concepts are alien. If one is designing a site or writing a document for mass consumption then the onus is on the author to make that site and the information contained therein as understandable as possible. (Most government information managers should keep that thought firmly in mind!). [Someone recently complained that by using the word "onus", above, I was guilty of using jargon and thus breaking my own rules. I suspect that is a difference in scope: I might have to spend a few years in graduate school to understand a paper on quantum field theory, but thirty seconds with a dictionary would explain "onus".]

The design barrier:

Some people think that to be truly accessible a page must contain only plain text. This is simply not true. While it is true that (marked-up) text is the best alternative for many non-textual page-design elements it is also quite easy to make a text-only page that is highly inaccessible to many users because of the placement of the text in the display. For example, using a TABLE to lay out multiple columns of text to look like a newspaper or magazine page can cause no end of trouble for some visitors. This is especially true of people with visual impairments who use assistive technology called screen-readers with their graphical browsers to hear the contents of the page. Another example of an inaccessible text-only design would be a complex spreadsheet with text that wraps within cells, and rows and columns that are joined in clever ways to highlight related groupings of data. Many non-visual users, or people whose browsers can't display tables, may get little of value from that page.

There is hope for reducing the problems related to page design. The W3C's XHTML and XML specifications provide many techniques that can add useful information about the design of a page to help special software agents reformat them intelligently for users with different needs. Using the W3C's Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) specification greatly improves access to the information on a site because it lets the author completely separate the "look" or "layout" of a page from the content. Somebody who only wants the content will be able to see it without the overhead of the page design. It also means that the content can be displayed in very different ways on a variety of different devices without losing the meaning or message. The same page could be displayed on a refreshable Braille device, on a large screen monitor, on a one-line pager display, or spoken to you through a voice synthesizer as you browse while driving to work in the morning.

The "Somebody else's problem" barrier:

Unfortunately many Web pages, especially those on very large sites, are often generated automatically by some document retrieval and conversion software (i.e. content management systems). Also many Web-page authors who find themselves under significant time pressure may use the document-to-HTML conversion tools found in common application software. Unfortunately in both cases the markup that is generated is not always accessible. Images will not be assigned alternative text, inappropriate elements may be used to render original document formatting, and so on. To ensure accessible markup an author or Web manager must still show some initiative and "clean up" the poor quality conversions. Fortunately, the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative has developed guidelines for manufacturers of Web authoring and conversion tools that, when adopted, will help reduce the size of this barrier

The "Latest is greatest!" barrier:

Try as we might, keeping up with changes in Web technology is a difficult task for people interested in Web accessibility. A site featuring the newest languages and applications requires the visitor to have the newest hardware or the newest version of a browser, and that causes the same old problems. But don't get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with "pushing the envelope" of Web site design. More often than not the advances in Web technology do make some things more accessible for a certain segment of the population. Yet at the same time these advancements can present huge barriers to many others. What you must ensure is that the information you are trying to convey to your audience is not lost to some of them just because you have access to technology they don't have. So, by all means, use the latest and greatest, but make sure you have included a fallback position for the rest of us. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative will provide you with the information you need to accomplish this relatively simple task.

If you are really pushing the envelope and are designing dynamic "Web 2.0" applications the W3C is developing the WAI-ARIA guidelines for making "rich Internet applications" accessible.

The "I didn't know that!" barrier:

Well, if you are reading this page… now you know. Thanks in great part to the Web Accessibility Initiative and the large and divers group of people involved in it, many more people around the world are learning about the need for, and the benefits of, accessible Web site design. There are moves afoot in both Canada and the United States to ensure that government Web sites will be far more accessible than in the past. Governments at every level have an obligation (and quite often the mandate) to ensure that all their constituents have equal access to important information and services.

Full and complete ability to interact with the site

By "full and complete ability to interact with the site", I refer to the hundreds of different ways that people have invented to work with computers. Believe it or not, not everyone uses a mouse, even if they are using a graphical user interface. Telling someone to "click on the picture of the house" is silly if they don't have a clicker. It is even sillier if they can't see the picture of the house because their browser doesn't display graphics. Most well designed computer software (especially applications for graphical operating systems) also allows for the use of the keyboard to complete any operation or command. A Web page should give you the same capability. And what about voice control? Voice recognition is becoming a force to be believed in the personal computer world. Can a voice user control your Web page?