Introduction to Web Accessibility
What is web accessibility?
Simply put, web accessibility means equal access for all. An accessible website is one that can be navigated and understood by everyone, regardless of disability.
For web professionals, making a website accessible means applying specific web development standards in order to make web content perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Though originally developed to aid people with disabilities, accessible web design has been shown to benefit a much larger audience, due to its broad range of applications and uses and continued importance in our technologically driven society.
Why is web accessibility important?
1. It’s the right thing to do.
The web is an increasingly important resource in life. It’s used to keep in touch with friends and family, follow world events, buy goods and services, and so much more. It’s difficult for many of us to imagine life without access to all that the web has to offer. Unfortunately, that’s what many people with disabilities currently face – a limited and frustrating web experience. An accessible web means equal access and equal opportunity for everyone.
2. It’s the smart thing to do.
Increase the traffic on your site. Building your website to be accessible for all users means you can increase the number of visitors to your site. In the United States, there are an estimated 55 million people with a disability (according to the 2010 U.S. Census), and this number will increase as the population ages. That means if you’re not considering the accessibility of your website, you may be excluding a group of users larger than the population of Canada.
Improve your site’s usability. Think about the automatic doors that open as you enter the grocery store. Many people are physically capable of opening a door for themselves, but those automatic doors make it easier for everyone to access the building. The same is true for an accessible website – it’s easier for everyone to access.
Raise your search rankings. Have you ever heard the phrase Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? The practices used to build accessible websites will also help search engines crawl your pages and catalog your content. Your page rank in popular search engines like Google will very likely improve as the accessibility of your site improves.
3. It’s the law.
There are various federal and state laws which require that organizations make their web content and other electronic information resources accessible to individuals with disabilities. Texas A&M’s web accessibility regulations, policies, and standards are in place to help the University comply with these laws.
Organizations, including large companies and educational institutions, have faced legal action for not complying with the accessibility requirements of the law; so, the consequences (financially and otherwise) of not making accessibility a priority in your organization are potentially severe for the University.
How do people with disabilities use the web?
The term “disability” is much broader than you might think. A disability can be any type of impairment - visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, neurological, etc. It can be something inherent or acquired; temporary or permanent; sudden or gradual. Creating an accessible website means you’re including everyone.
Individuals with disabilities that significantly affect the way they can interact with technology often use assistive technology to help them use computing devices and the web. These tools are very diverse, but here are some examples of commonly used assistive tools.
- Screen reader
- An application that reads content aloud to the user. Screen readers are often used by people with significant visual impairments (i.e., blind or low vision). Consequently, screen reader users are also likely to navigate websites using only a keyboard (a mouse is ineffective for someone who can’t see). Popular screen reader applications are JAWS, VoiceOver, and NVDA.
- Screen magnifier
- An application that magnifies content on the screen. Magnifiers are often used by low vision users, some of whom may be legally blind. A popular screen magnifier is ZoomText.
- Speech recognition software
- An application that uses voice input to perform actions, type, and execute commands. Voice recognition software is especially useful for users with disabilities that limit their motor skills through physical and/or neurological impairments (i.e., motor disabilities). A popular voice recognition application is Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
- Alternative input devices
- Someone with limited mobility or motor disabilities may use any number of input devices to navigate your website, beyond a mouse and keyboard. Some users rely on a keyboard, only. Others will use specialized touchpads or modified keyboards configured for their needs (e.g., large key, large print, or keyboards configured for use with one hand). Still others, who have limited or no mobility from the neck down, may use electronic pointing devices or sip-and-puff systems that are activated by inhaling or exhaling.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you some idea of the great diversity of tools and modes of access that users may navigate your website with. It’s much more varied than traditional desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Web Accessibility Standards
This great diversity is exactly why we have standards. It’s an impossible task to develop a website that accounts for every individual. Standards give web professionals, assistive technology developers, and users the same set of rules to work from. When everyone is building from the same rules, our efforts will produce consistent, reliable results.
Section 508 is an amendment to the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Its current form was enacted in 1998.
The portion of Section 508 which specifically relates to websites is under Sub-part B, 1194.22. In order for a Federal agency website to comply with Section 508, it must adhere to the sixteen provisions listed therein.
The Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are a set of guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). These guidelines describe how to make content accessible, primarily for users with disabilities.
WCAG 2.0 has been accepted as an International Standards Organization (ISO) standard, and many countries have adopted WCAG 2.0 as their legal standard for web accessibility, instead of drafting their own legislation.
Standards at Texas A&M University
Texas A&M’s Web Accessibility Standards help ensure University web pages are created and maintained to serve the largest possible audience. These standards are based on Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 AA, and align with the web accessibility requirements of Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M University System, and the State of Texas. If you have a role in creating and/or maintaining websites at Texas A&M, it’s important that you learn and incorporate these standards.
Did you know?
- In the United States, about 55 million people have a disability (src: 2010 U.S. Census).
- About 1 in 5 Americans have some kind of disability (src: 2010 U.S. Census).
- The percentage of people affected by disabilities is growing as our population ages.
- Two popular, free screen readers are VoiceOver (Mac OS and iOS) and NVDA (Win).
- Good accessibility practices can improve the search ranking of your website.
- Form fields without labels can cause problems for some assistive technology users.
- Low color contrast makes content difficult to see, especially for users with low vision.
- Documents linked on a website need to be accessible too (e.g., PDF and Word files).
- Audio content, like podcasts, need transcripts for deaf or hard of hearing users.
- Online videos should be captioned for deaf or hard of hearing users.
- Using HTML tags correctly is very important for accessibility.
- Descriptive link text helps make a website more accessible. Avoid using "Click here" or "Read more."
- A "screen reader" is an application that reads content aloud to a user.
- There is no "alt tag" in HTML. "Alt" is an attribute used with the img tag.
- HTML uses the alt attribute to provide a text description of an image.
- Alt text should describe an image, if the purpose of the image is to convey information.
- If an image is a link, the alt text for the image should explain where the link goes.
- If an image is only being used for decoration, the alt text should be null (i.e., alt="").
- If a table has headers, using header tags (<th>) will make the table more accessible.
- An accessible website is one that can be navigated and understood by everyone.