Why Should You Create Accessible Web Content?
Many reasons that might motivate people to create accessible web content. The three main reasons are to improve disabled peoples lives, create a wider audience for your content, and finally to avoid lawsuits or bad publicity.
The first resaon is a humanity-centered motivation, the second is an economics-centered motivation, while the third is a self-preservation motivation that we all prefer to avoid conflict.
Each by themselves is a good reason to create web accessible content. It doesn’t really matter what your motivation is. Web accessibility is most easily achieved when people are at the center of the process.
Even if you are just trying to avoid lawsuits, sooner or later you will understand that the needs of people with disabilities must be carefully considered and addressed. You need to understand your user’s perspective and how you can help them have an accessible experience. You need to move beyond just technical accessibility considerations. This can be acheived if you focus on the principles of accessibility.
You Need to Understand Your User’s Perspective
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are designed to make life easier for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities want to have equal access to all of the resources offered on the web. Ideally, the web is the perfect medium to make the world more accessible to people with disabilities.
The web should not be a barrier to people with disabilities, it should be the solution to many of their challenges. However for the web to reach its full potential for people with disabilities, web developers must commit to always designing with accessibility in mind.
This is why web accessibility has become so important. Web developers must keep their user’s perspective in mind when developing web sites. An accessible Internet is not a solution to every obstacle faced by people with disabilities, but it is at least a step in the right direction.
You Must Move Beyond Technical Accessibility
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely-accepted set of recommendations for web accessibility. The process used to develop the guidelines is purposefully slow and methodical to consider a wide variety of viewpoints and issues.
The accessibility guidelines provide an excellent foundation upon which to build accessible web content. Developers need to understand the reasons behind the guidelines to help them apply the guidelines correctly and effectively.
For example, one of the best-known guidelines is to provide alternative text for images using the alt attribute of the <img> tag. If web developers learn only the guideline, but don’t understand the reason for the guideline, they may provide alternative text that is not helpful to users who need it. They may even create rather than solve accessibility barriers.
When developers focus on technical specifications, they may achieve technical accessibility, but may not achieve usable accessibility. To make a comparison, a large office building may be technically accessible to a person who is blind. A blind person may be able to walk through all the hallways, use the elevators, open the doors, etc.. But without an explanation or perhaps a tactile map, the building will be difficult to navigate, especially at first. The person may find locations through a process of trial and error, but this is a very slow and cumbersome process. The building is accessible, but would not be easily usable.
In a similar way, web developers can create web sites that are possible for people with disabilities to access, but only with great difficulty. The technical standards are important, but they may be insufficient on their own. Developers need to learn when and how to go beyond the technical standards when necessary.
You Must Focus on the Principles of Accessibility
Version 1.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines focused heavily on the techniques for accomplishing accessibility, especially as related to HTML. WCAG 2.0 takes a different approach. It focuses more heavily on the principles of accessibility, and presents some techniques in separate documents.
By focusing more on principles rather than techniques, version 2.0 of the guidelines is more flexible, and encourages developers to think through the process conceptually. The four guiding principles of accessibility in WCAG 2.0 are that web content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for it to be truly accessible.
Conveniently, these principles spell out an acronym that is relatively easy to remember, POUR. The idea is to create a POUR web site, so to speak. The pun may be a bad one, but if it helps developers memorize the principles, then it has served its purpose. Each of these principles is discussed more in depth in the following sections.
If a developer makes the POUR principles his priority, the web content produced will be accessible. It also helps if you put people at the center of the process.
Your Web Site Must be Perceivable
Input into the brain via at least one of the senses of the body is required with every form of communication. The Internet is a communication format which provides access to knowledge and processes through electronic means. The most relevant senses in this context are sight, hearing, and touch.
Any discussion of web accessibility is based upon the assumption that people need to be able to perceive web content. You need to be able to input the information into your brain so that it can process it. If the information cannot get into the brain, it is not accessible.
As obvious as that statement may be, it is a principle which is frequently ignored by web developers. Too many sites contain web content that cannot even be perceived by some of the people who try to access it.
Your Web Site Must Address Visual Disabilities
People with full use of their vision are able to read text, view images, understand the visual cues afforded by web page layouts, understand the symbolic meaning of colors in certain cultural contexts (as with red and green street lights, or blue and pink baby clothing), and in general can use their eyes to make sense of information that is presented to them. This mode of perception—from the eye to the brain—is powerful, and Web developers should take full advantage of its communicative strengths. Visual perception is especially important to individuals who lack one of the other main communicative senses, such as people who are deaf. For such individuals, their remaining senses take on heightened importance.
However, there are people who cannot take full advantage of this mode of communication. Some people have no vision at all. Others have a limited amount of vision. For these individuals, other modes of communication are necessary. In some cases this means that information must be converted into a format which they can more easily perceive, such as an audio format. Assistive technologies can perform this conversion, but only if the content is designed with accessibility in mind.
Your Web Content Must Address Sensory Disabilities
For most people, touch is not their main form of communication. For them, touch may have relevance for indirect expressions of solidarity, as in romantic relationships, among friends, and other situations that communicate emotions but which do not directly communicate information per se.
For individuals who have neither sight nor hearing, touch is the most important form of communication of all. Communication is possible through sign language, in which two people use their hands to feel each other’s gestures, signed language, and body movements. The fingers can be used to perceive textual information printed in Braille formats. Refreshable Braille devices can even convert text into Braille output for use on the web.
Your Web Site Must Address Auditory Disabilities
Oral conversations between people occurr daily. The Internet enables people to engage in voice chats, to leave voice messages, to watch videos, to hear music, and to listen to web radio broadcasts. Individuals can also participate in other kinds of audio interactions with people or with prepared electronic content.
Technologies and methods exist for making audio information available to people Unable to hear it. These technologies and methods cannot help anybody though unless someone actually uses them to make the information accessible to people who cannot hear it.
Your Web Content Must Have Transformability
Since not everyone has the same abilities or equal use of the same senses, a key to accessibility is ensuring that information is transformable from one form into another. Your content should be able to be perceived in multiple ways.
Text can be transformed into audio and into Braille by assistive technologies. Audio can be transformed into text, which should be done before it reaches the user. Technologies to automatically convert audio to text are usually unreliable and not commonly available. Graphics, animations, and videos are similar to audio in the sense that developers must provide the text alternative to users.
Text is the most easily and universally transformable format. This does not mean that web accessibility means an end to all non-text elements. On the contrary, the non-text elements in many cases are crucial to accessibility, as explained in Text-only Versions.
The take-home message is that the information must be perceivable somehow. That is the first step to accessibility upon which all others are based, and without which accessibility cannot happen.
Your Web Content Must Come Before Style and Presentation
The main content should be separable from the way it is styled or presented. Even though styling can enhance the user experience, and in some cases even improve comprehension, the main message should not depend on the mode of presentation. Semantic structure and meaning should be independent of the “look and feel.” This is important because not all users will be able to perceive the presentational look and feel aspects of web content. When the presentation is disabled, the web content should still be able to communicate its message effectively.
See Creating Semantic Structure for more information.
In addition, background colors, graphics, and sounds should not interfere with the content. If the main content is presented in an audio format, background sounds should not obscure the message. Content presented in a visual format should likewise be distinguishable from extraneous stylistic visual elements. Text should be distinguishable from its background.
Your Web Content Must be Operable
Not everyone uses a standard keyboard and mouse to access the web. Some people use adaptive devices or alternative devices that accommodate their disabilities. Some people simply prefer to use the alternative technologies. While this may not seem like an important point at first, consider the fact that some web content can be operated only with a mouse.
Mouse-dependent web content will be inaccessible to a person cannot use a standard mouse—due to tremors, insufficient fine motor control, or even a lack of hands altogether. A person in this situation is likely to use an adaptive technology of some sort, such as a mouth stick, to manipulate the keyboard. In some cases, the person may be able to use a trackball mouse, but others need to rely on the functionality of the keyboard. Check out my article on motor disabilities.
People who do not have use of their vision usually rely on the functionality of the keyboard as well. They may be able to manipulate a mouse just fine, but it doesn’t do them much good because they can’t see where to click on the screen. The keyboard is much easier for a person who is blind to manipulate. See my visual disabilities article.
Keyboard accessibility is one of the most important principles of Web accessibility because it cuts across disability types and technologies. Most of the alternative and adaptive devices used by people with disabilities emulate keyboard functionality. Content that is accessible to the keyboard is operable by the devices that emulate keyboard functionality, no matter how different those devices are from standard keyboards.
Your Web Content Must be Interactive
Users should be able to find, navigate through, and interact with web content. Site search features, site indexes, and site maps allow users to locate content within a Web site. Your users should also be able to bypass extraneous or irrelevant pieces of content in order to focus on the content of interest to them.
They should be able discern the structure of the content by its headings, subsections, bulleted lists, and other elements of semantic markup. Which simply means that your site content should be navigable or operable by multiple methods.
Your Web Content Must be User Controllable
If possible, your users should have an unlimited amount of time to complete tasks on the web. Motor disabilities can slow a person’s muscle movements. Cognitive disabilities can slow a person’s mental processes. Even visual or auditory disabilities can slow a person’s response time if the information is not ideally accessible.
Security concerns can become an issue, and time limits must be set on Web content. A common example is online banking. Allowing the user an unlimited amount of time to complete tasks would put that user’s bank account information at risk, especially if the computer is in a shared or public environment.
In all cases, users should be allowed sufficient time to complete the tasks they are supposed to complete. This can be done by allowing everyone an unlimited amount of time, allowing special accommodations for those who need them, or some other solution between those two extremes.
Your users should also be able to manipulate and control media players, animations, and any other kind of time-dependent content. Media players should include ways of pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding content. Users should be able to stop animations, especially if they flicker or strobe, because this puts some users at risk for experiencing seizures.
Your Web Content Must be Recoverable From Errors
No one likes to accidentally and permanently delete a file, pay for the wrong product, send an email to the wrong person, or make any mistake that can’t be corrected. Users with disabilities are no exception. Unfortunately people with disabilities may be more likely than people without disabilities to make a mistake.
People with tremors may hit the wrong key or click on the wrong link. People with cognitive disabilities may misunderstand the purpose of a link and click the wrong one. People make spelling mistakes when typing search terms, their address, or any other kind of content.
We all appreciate being able to recover from mistakes. We all deserve a second chance. Web developers should program second chances into their Web functionality. Confirmation screens, error alerts, and warnings should all be an integral part of the design of interactive web content.
It is often helpful to provide users with instructions. Especially if the interaction is complicated or if the site is information rich and some things may be difficult to find. Often a few words of instruction can eliminate or at least decrease the number of errors committed by users.
Your Web Content Must be Understandable
Let’s say that web content is perceivable and operable by all kinds of users of all abilities, but nobody can understand your content. Is your web content accessible? Of course not. Understandability can be just as big a barrier to accessibility as any of the more technical issues.
Talking about understandability moves the discussion into the broader realm of usability. Usability became a hot topic in the late nineties and early 21st century. It still is a hot topic, but has moved from being a fad to being a mainstream topic of conversation among web developers.
Web accessibility never achieved “fad” status, but awareness of the topic has also increased over time. Unfortunately, too many people still separate usability and accessibility into two separate disciplines.
Trying to separate principles into mutually exclusive categories of “usability” versus “accessibility” is pointless. There is too much of an overlap between the two. After all, could an unusable site ever be considered an accessible site? Not if accessibility means anything.
Your Web Content Must be in a Common Language
Most web content contains information communicated through language. The language should be as easy to understand as possible. The wording as well as the words should be simple and concise.
How simple and concise? That depends on a number of factors, many of which depend upon the characteristics of the intended audience. Factors such as the audience’s educational background, their familiarity with the subject matter, their background knowledge and life experiences, their culture, and so on.
Authors do not always know the exact characteristics of their audience, so it is usually best to err on the side of caution by using simple language and explaining background information that readers may not know. Other factors are related to the content itself, such as the level of detail required to understand it, reason for talking about about the subject matter, and so on.
Follow this link for further information about Writing Clearly and Simply.
Your Web Content Must Provide Alternative or Supplemental Representations
Providing alternative or supplemental representations of information can often increase understandability. Text can be supplemented with illustrations, videos, animations, audio, and content in other alternative formats. In fact, for some people with more severe cognitive disabilities or people with reading disabilities, these alternative formats may be necessary for comprehension. Providing summaries or abstracts of lengthy content can also make it more understandable.
Your Web Content Must be Functional
The functionality of web content must also be understandable. Your users must be able to understand all navigation and other forms of interaction. On static web sites, the interaction may be limited to hypertext links.
Every point of interaction deserves attention in order to give users the best experience possible. If users don’t understand any of the points of interaction, they may not be able to complete the necessary tasks on that web site.
Your navigation should be consistent and predictable throughout the context of the web site. Interactive elements such as form controls should also be predictable and should be clearly labeled. Users should be able to access instructions or receive guidance.
If math calculations are involved, such as when subtotaling items in a shopping cart, the math should either be calculated automatically, or else users should be provided with guidance and/or tools on how to perform the calculations.
Your Web Content Must be Robust
Despite the differences between users and the technologies they use, they all expect the web to work. When they go to a site that uses methods not supported by their technologies, they get frustrated and may never return. In the past it was common to see sites optimized for certain browsers or versions of browsers. Fortunately, most developers now try to develop their content so that it will work in many versions of many browsers.
Your Web Content Must be Functional Across Technologies
Not everyone uses the same technologies now, nor will they in the future. People use different operating systems, different browsers, and different versions of browsers. Some people have advanced features enabled. Others have these features turned off. Some people are early adopters of new technologies. Others are slow to adapt to the rapidly-changing currents in the flow of technological advances.
Users should be allowed to choose their own technologies to access web content. This allows the users to customize their technologies to meet their needs, including accessibility needs. Web content that requires a certain technology, such as a certain browser or screen reader, may exclude some types of users who either don’t want to use that technology or can’t use it because of their disability. As a general rule, the more control the user has, the more likely the user will be able to access the content effectively.
Of course, there are limits to this logic. Many technologies and web accessibility techniques are not supported in older browsers and screen readers. Modern web developers should not be forced to develop to the “lowest common denominator”.
Developers can and should feel free to take advantage of technological advances, including in areas related to accessibility. When considering implementation of innovative technologies and techniques, they must strike a balance between pushing innovation boundaries and considering the technologies their end users will be using.
Developers can set a baseline of requirements. For example, they could decide to fully support browsers that are four years old or newer. Users of older browsers could still access the content, but perhaps it wouldn’t be styled properly due to lack of support for newer features. As long as the baseline is not too restrictive, limiting full support to a subset of technologies is a reasonable approach. And, again, to the extent possible, it is still best to let the user decide which technologies to use.
Your Web Content Must Use Technologies According to Specification
Modern browsers are much better than older browsers at supporting content and accessibility properly. However, browsers cannot correct or compensate for all of the errors and inconsistencies that developers introduce in web content. The best way to ensure that content displays properly and accessibly is to create web content that validates against the technical standards for the technologies commonly used.
Valid HTML is much more likely to work correctly across browsers and platforms than sloppy HTML. It is also more likely to work consistently in the different types of assistive technologies that people with disabilities use. Invalid HTML may still work for some users on some technologies, but it is a gamble that puts accessibility at risk for all users.
Rather than focus on the limitations of old technologies, it is often better to focus on the possibilities offered by current and future technologies. Screen reader users surveys indicate that most screen reader users tend to use fairly up-to-date browsers and screen readers, though there will always be some who lag behind.
In order to create content that is “future proof”— compatible with future technologies — it is necessary to use current technologies according to specification. Doing this ensures that future browsers and content viewers will know how to interpret the content.
In some cases it may take more time and effort to develop web content according to the specifications of the technologies being used. However, it will produce more reliable results and will increase the chances that the content will be accessible to people with disabilities.