The Internet, through the interface of the World Wide Web, has become an important factor in almost everyone’s life, at least those of us living in the developed world. Along with other twentieth-century technological innovations like the telephone, radio, television, and the automobile, the Internet and the Web have revolutionized how human beings interact with each other. Unfortunately, just like the aforementioned innovations, the Internet also fails to take into consideration those members of society contending with limited physical accessibility.
The Web was designed for people who could see, hear, move a mouse, and type on a keyboard. If you cannot perform one or more of those functions proficiently, functions so many of us take for granted, you will likely find navigating the Web a challenge to say the least.
To address the needs of this select group of people, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), through its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), has developed a set of guidelines and standards for Web site developers to follow that is intended to make accessibility more universal. While many developers will find compliance with all the provisions of the guidelines problematic, a measure of compliance can be accomplished with a minimum of additional effort, if you know where to look.
As the organization responsible for setting standards and specifications for all things Web-related, the W3C through the WAI is seeking to establish a common set of design specifications that all developers can follow that will make their Web sites accessible by all. This is, obviously, very ambitious. But as you’ll see from the general principles, it may not be as difficult to achieve as you may first think.
The overarching principles, as stated in the WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, are to ensure graceful transformations and to make content understandable and navigable. While those two principles sound almost obvious and even doable, how a developer puts together the minute details and work required to achieve them is not nearly as obvious.
For example, the keys to designing Web pages that make graceful transformation according to the WAI include:
- Separate structure from presentation.
- Provide text that can be rendered in ways that are available to almost all browsing devices and accessible to almost all users.
- Create documents that work even if the user cannot see and/or hear.
- Create documents that do not rely on one type of hardware.
The guideline details establish this list of specific principles to follow:
- Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
- Don’t rely on color alone.
- Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.
- Clarify natural language usage.
- Create tables that transform gracefully.
- Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
- Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
- Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
- Design for device-independence.
- Use interim solutions.
- Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
- Provide context and orientation information.
- Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
- Ensure that documents are clear and simple.
Keep in mind that each specific principle contains numerous checkpoints that designers can use to gauge the compliance of their Web sites. Each checkpoint in turn is given a priority by the W3C committee:
- Priority 1: A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint.
- Priority 2: A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint.
- Priority 3: A Web content developer may address this checkpoint.
The specifics of each checkpoint in the guideline are beyond our discussion here, but I encourage you to read the WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 document.
What it means
If your Web site is merely a fan site for Anna Kournikova, then compliance with the accessibility guidelines is probably the least of your worries. However, if you are developing a site for a government agency, then compliance with the WAI guidelines and Section 508 is mandatory. Regulations concerning accessibility also apply to federally funded universities and to regulated banking institutions.
Clearly, designing accessibility to your Web site is not only good practice, but in some cases, it is the law. Applying the WAI guidelines at the beginning of a project can save you the headaches and expense of modifying the Web site infrastructure after rollout.
According to David Grant of Watchfire, a company that specializes in analyzing Web sites to measure compliance with the WAI guidelines, most clients are able to meet all of the Priority 1 guidelines and most of the Priority 2. He has noticed a marked increase in clients striving to meet these standards as part of an overall plan to reach the most people using the most possible mediums. One side effect of meeting accessibility guidelines is that your Web site becomes accessible to all kinds of electronic devices. Telephones and other handheld mobile devices, because of their limited capacity to display graphics, are able to interact with accessibility-compliant Web sites more readily.
To illustrate the complexities of accessibility compliance, we subjected Builder to a frank Watchfire accessibility assessment. The poor accessibility rating for Builder was not a surprise, but the extent of the problem did raise a few eyebrows. Builder failed to meet a number of Priority 1 guidelines, including an overall lack of alternative text for all of the graphical elements prevalent on the site (see Figure A).
Unfortunately for advocates of the WAI Accessibility Guidelines, the result is fairly typical for most media-oriented Web sites. But while Builder’s accessibility deficiencies are significant, they are not so overwhelming as to be beyond correction.
In its assessment of Builder.com’s accessibility compliance, Watchfire determined that our shortcomings were similar to the compliance shortcomings of many Web sites. Sue Ann Wright of Watchfire offered these general recommendations and steps to make yours (and our) Web site more accessible:
- Identify the accessibility guidelines you will use. This depends on any legal or industry requirements, other accessibility drivers you have, and the resources you have available. Most organizations choose to adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the W3C. There are three levels of priority; many organizations select the Priority 1 level initially, but industry standards are to select Priority 1 and 2. U.S. federal government sites choose Section 508 standards; many U.S. states and educational institutions, and some corporations, use these standards as well. Some organizations create their own standards, but it is important for these to be compatible with international standards so there is a common “definition” of accessibility. Some specific suggestions for high-priority guidelines are in the WAI Quicktips.
- Create an accessibility plan. You should create a plan outlining your commitment to accessibility, priorities, timelines, procedures, etc. This plan will drive the accessibility agenda, serve as a reference, and should include internal training and enforcement mechanisms.
- Evaluate the quality of your current site. Use automated evaluation solutions to take a census of your site, gain an understanding of where you stand, and identify your key problem areas. Manual evaluation, which can be assisted by automated tools, helps provide a complete picture for those guidelines that are very subjective.
- Perform targeted retrofits. Fix accessibility problems on the most important sections of your site. These include your home page, entry pages for site sections, high traffic pages, pages oriented at people with disabilities, and pages whose content is crucial to the ability of many users to benefit from the site.
- Educate designers and developers about accessibility. As the Web site is maintained or new Web sites developed, it is important to pay attention to accessibility from the beginning of the accessibility process. If site designers and page developers understand accessibility, they can pay attention to it as they work. While an internal accessibility specialist may monitor accessibility, this person cannot evaluate and repair all the work that is being done. Making sure your staff knows how to implement accessibility will reduce the need for costly retrofits later.
- Design accessibility into your site’s look and feel. Some aspects of accessibility, such as color choice, site organization, page layout, font selection, etc., need to be addressed in the early stages of site design. This will ensure a consistent site and will avoid the need to duplicate work later.
- Adopt standard approaches for use of images, media elements, etc. Where feasible, create organizational standards for particular site features—when to use them, guidelines for creating text alternatives, etc.
- Ensure you use semantic coding. This accessibility guideline is not intuitive for many designers, but is important because it ensures that even if the site appears very different to a person with a disability, it is still understandable. Use the HTML elements to identify headers, lists, paragraphs, etc., rather than using font settings, images for bullets, etc. Minimize the use of tables to lay out your page. Cascading style sheets, or CSS, allows you to achieve the design you want while avoiding non-semantic HTML code.
- Use a Content Management System (CMS). If you have a large Web site, a CMS will help maintain the accessibility of the site. By creating accessible templates and navigation, much of the work is done by the CMS. If you do have to repair an accessibility problem, many issues can be fixed once and automatically applied to the entire site.
Examples of WAI Compliant Web sites
Complying with the W3C WAI Accessibility Guidelines takes a significant commitment of time and effort when designing and implementing a Web site. For many enterprises, achieving this higher standard is not a priority and is therefore relegated to the back burner or just not considered at all. However, compliance in certain industries and situations is not an option—federal regulations and laws come into play.
Watchfire’s solutions help improve online effectiveness by protecting your brand, improving the customer experience, and enabling privacy, regulatory and accessibility compliance across all your Web properties.
Regardless of your situation, when it comes to planning and designing your Web site, you should consider the provisions outlined in the WAI Guidelines. Most of the Priority 1 checkpoints can be achieved with minimal effort and really fall into the realm of best practice. Many Priority 2 checkpoints are also within reach. Paying attention to detail and making a few design tweaks can make your Web site accessible to a whole new set of users. In a competitive world, that is definitely something worth considering.