The Challenges of Web Accessibility
Nowadays, we're engaging in more and more activities online–from reading news to banking to conducting business. At this point, not having access to the Internet is a huge liability. Unfortunately, according to AFB's Public Policy Center, one of the foremost authorities on statistics relating to the blind and visually impaired population, people who are blind or visually impaired are lagging behind.
Interpreting data from the Census Bureau's 1999 Survey of Income and Program Participation, AFB determined that there is a very large difference (over 30%) in rates of access to the Internet and regular computer usage between people with no disabilities and people with limitations in seeing. In addition, people with more severe visual impairments, have even lower rates of both access to the Internet and regular computer use than do those who report difficulty seeing.
Why is there such a disparity? First of all, few web designers follow guidelines for accessibility. Although the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes guidelines online, not everyone knows about them. Moreover, only companies that have government contracts are mandated by Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make their websites accessible. Training for developers in this area is also not readily available in most places, so many sites lack good text descriptions of images, properly labeled forms, and logically ordered content. There are no easy solutions to many accessibility problems, especially since computer technology itself continues to progress and change at lightning speed.
In response to these issues, AFB has offered its website–www.afb.org–as a good example of how to create and maintain a website that is fully functional for all people–sighted or visually impaired. Leading the way in the movement to create web sites that are fully functional for everyone, sighted or visually impaired, AFB's website is not only fully accessible, it offers features which are customizable.
People have begun to take notice. "This new 'soft' structure of [AFB's] website," remarks Guido D. Corona, an advisory market specialist with IBM's Worldwide Accessibility Group, "where the semantics of a page are not tightly coupled with a particular visual presentation, but rather allow a user to customize the view according to personal needs, preferences, or output device requirements and restrictions, may likely be the way of the future."
However, to reach such a goal, it is critical that web designers understand how to integrate accessible functions and practices into their site designs. "Raising awareness among web designers," said Judy Brewer, director of W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative, "is a pressing issue. Although many designers are currently not familiar with accessibility issues, we hope that accessibility concerns will eventually become a standard phase of the design process. After all, before the ADA, designing buildings with entrance ramps would have been thought strange; now we all expect it as the norm."
More and more organizations are asking designers to make their websites accessible–and for good reason. First of all, the more people who can use a site, the more potential clients it can generate. Online stores, in particular, have a great deal to gain, since many people who are blind or visually impaired find it much easier to shop independently through the Internet than to go to a store in person. Companies with government contracts, by law, must make their web sites accessible according to Section 508 of the ADA. In addition, businesses gain a more positive reputation by being socially responsible.
Perhaps most importantly, however, accessible websites tend to be better designed in general. Chances are, designing for accessibility leads the programmer to examine site navigation and the information being presented more closely. "A good website," said Corona, "is accessible for people with disabilities, usable in terms of navigation and logical structure, and useful with regard to the information being presented–usually with a specific audience in mind. In my opinion AFB's website has all three characteristics."
The future looks bright for web accessibility. Although more and more web applications are being developed that present challenges to accessible design, history shows us that accessibility finds its way into the mainstream. The Internet seems destined, by its very nature, to be fully accessible to everyone. "The web was always intended to be interactive," said Brewer. "All people should be able to contribute."