About web accessibility
There is no doubt that the web has changed the way we communicate, teach, learn, interact and search for information. However, it is the profound and positive effect this technology has had on people with disabilities and their quality of life that makes the web particularly special. Equipped with assistive technologies and an easy access to the web, their disability no longer poses a barrier and participating in every day activities, shopping, working, socialising and studying – without having to rely on others – becomes possible.
“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.” (W3C Web Accessibility Initiative).
The web has a potential to give people with disabilities a chance for an independent life. By ignoring their needs when developing our web resources, we take this independence away.
What is an accessible web design?
In its broadest sense, accessible web design aims to accommodate the diverse needs of people using the web. In this design approach, emphasis is placed on separating content (HTML) from presentation (CSS) and behaviour (scripts), and creating semantically meaningful and valid markup.
“Accessibility is about communication and compromise. Nobody expects you to cater for every disabled group because you simply cannot predict all scenarios. You need to go as far as you can but keep an open ear for concerns that are raised before legal action is taken.” (10 Reasons Clients Don't Care About Accessibility).
To design websites that are accessible to people with disabilities in particular, we need to understand how they use the web and the types of problems they encounter.
Types of disabilities
There are various disabilities, permanent or temporary (and with varying degree of severity) that affect how a person interacts with the web:
- Visual: e.g. blindness, low vision, colour blindness
- Hearing (auditory): e.g. partial or complete hearing loss, tinnitus
- Physical (motor): e.g. paralysis, repetitive stress injury (RSI), arthritis, cerebral palsy
- Cognitive/learning: e.g. dyslexia, acquired brain injury (ABI), autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Seizure disorders: e.g. photo-epilepsy
Considering the User Perspective: A Summary of Design Issues will provide you with an overview of the design considerations for various types of disabilities.
Assistive technologies used for web browsing
Most people access websites with a browser displayed on their monitor, using a keyboard and a mouse to interact with the content. However, people with disabilities often rely on different applications and devices, collectively known as assistive (or adaptive) technologies, that enable them to use their computers.
- People who are blind, vision impaired or who have cognitive disabilities use screen reader software, which reads out content of web pages using synthesized speech.
- People who are blind use Braille terminals (a Refreshable Braille display with either a QWERTY or Braille keyboard).
- People who are vision impaired use screen magnification software to enlarge what is displayed on the computer monitor (they also increase font size or use the zoom option in their browsers, e.g. Opera or Firefox 3)
- People with physical disabilities use speech recognition software to interact with a computer or for dictation.
- People with physical disabilities also use specially adapted keyboards, joysticks, trackballs, sip and puff, head pointers and eye tracking software instead of a standard mouse and keyboard.
More assistive technologies in action: