Many developers don’t realize that there is federal legislation that addresses accessibility standards for disabled individuals in the procurement and use of electronic and information technology (EIT). One area addressed in this legislation is federal accessibility guidelines for Web applications and sites. The legislation’s authors based these guidelines on the recommendations of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

WAI is a working committee of the W3C. Its mission is to support the W3C’s commitment to lead the Web to its fullest potential by promoting a high degree of usability for people with disabilities. In coordination with organizations around the world, WAI pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary directives:

  • Technology
  • Guidelines
  • Tools
  • Education and outreach
  • Research and development

WAI publishes its recommendations as a series of standards and has issued these three sets of recommended guidelines:

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0—This explains in detail how to make a Web site accessible for people with a variety of disabilities.
  • Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0—This describes how to use current tools to support the production of accessible Web content.
  • User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0—This explains how to make accessible browsers and multimedia players and how to make assistive technologies that interface with these technologies.

Rules to code by
On May 5, 1999, the W3C formally recognized the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 as a W3C recommendation, consisting of 14 general rules that must be followed when building Web content. The rules are as follows:

  • 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.

WAI further refined these 14 rules by providing over 60 specific checkpoints for use in evaluating Web conformance (for example, providing text-equivalent information for images using HTML alt directives).

WAI also assigns each of the checkpoints a priority based on how much it affects accessibility:

  • Priority 1—Web content developers must satisfy this checkpoint; otherwise, some end users will find the page impossible to use.
  • Priority 2—Web content developers should satisfy this checkpoint; otherwise, some end users will find the page difficult to use.
  • Priority 3—Web content developers may address this checkpoint; otherwise, some end users may find the page somewhat difficult to use.

Adherence to these checkpoints determines overall compliance to the guidelines. WAI recognizes the following three levels of conformance:

  • Conformance Level “A”—The document satisfies all Priority 1 checkpoints.
  • Conformance Level “Double-A”—The document complies with all Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints.
  • Conformance Level “Triple-A”—The document fulfills all Priority 1, 2, and 3 checkpoints.

More than just a pretty site
For the disabled, the Web can provide a mixed blessing. Due to its tremendous growth and acceptance, the Web has become a viable and cost-effective source for the distribution of information, displacing traditional outlets.

By including accessibility features, the Web can provide tremendous benefits for those who have difficulty using more conventional sources. But without added accessibility features, the Web may be as discouraging as traditional information outlets to those with disabilities.