For most people, surfing the web is an activity taken for granted. For people with disabilities however, the Internet can be an inhospitable place. Shawn Lawton Henry leads the World Wide Web Consortium’s education and outreach activities promoting web accessibility for people with disabilities and in this interview I picked her brain about why accessibility is important for the Internet at large. Turns out it’s not just individuals with disabilities that can benefit from a more accessible website, it’s businesses as well.
Define web accessibility and why it’s important.
Web accessibility is designing the Web so that people can use it, specifically people with disabilities. In our Introduction to Web Accessibility, we say: Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.
Because of the role the Web plays in society, it’s vital that the Web be accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities. When the Web is accessible, many people with disabilities can communicate, interact, and create online much more easily than in the physical world.
W3C WAI has an updated Accessibility page that introduces the what, why, where, and how of Web accessibility. I encourage everyone to read what it says about how the impact of disabilities can be radically changed for people using the Web when websites, Web technologies, and Web tools are properly designed. And, when websites, Web technologies, or Web tools are badly designed, they can create barriers that exclude people from using the Web.
Web accessibility is important not only for individuals and for society; also for governments and for businesses.
How can businesses benefit from becoming more accessible on the web?
An accessible website is often the easiest way to do business with many people with disabilities, for example, people who cannot read print material, people who have difficulty getting to a physical store, and others. Also, what you do for accessibility overlaps with other best practices such as mobile Web design, usability, and search engine optimization (SEO).
Accessible websites also work better for older users with age-related accessibility needs. “Seniors” are becoming an even more important customer base for most organizations, as the percentage of older users is increasing significantly.
We have a whole resource on Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization. It also mentions that accessibility is required by law in some cases, and making your website accessible reduces the risk of costly legal action. We’ve just added an appendix of statistics, case studies, and articles that support the business case, and we’re gathering more resources.
From the freelancer’s perspective, understanding accessibility and being able to design and develop accessible websites gives you a competitive advantage that in some cases could win you contracts over others.
What types of assistive technologies exist to make the Web more accessible?
Web accessibility is really about designing websites, Web browsers, and other Web tools so that they are flexible and adaptable to meet users’ needs. For example, up until recently most common browsers did not provide zoom functionality. They had settings for some font resizing, but that only worked if the website developer used relative font sizes instead of absolute sizes, and didn’t put text in images.
We talk about this interdependent relationship in Essential Components of Web Accessibility. Assistive technologies are only one component of Web accessibility.
When websites are well designed, they will work with assistive technology, such as screen readers that read aloud what’s on the screen for people who are blind, cannot process written language well, or have other print disabilities; screen magnification software for people with some types of low vision; and mouth sticks or head sticks for people who cannot use their arms. For more, see How People with Disabilities Use the Web and Videos of How People with Disabilities use ICT.
What motivates you the most to improve accessibility?
Empowerment. Enabling people to participate in society through the Web. There are so many people for whom interacting in the physical world is really tough, yet interacting with an accessible Web is easy.
As I said in Just Ask: With accessible websites, people with disabilities can do ordinary things: children can learn, teenagers can flirt, adults can make a living, seniors can manage their stock portfolios, and so on. With the Web, people with disabilities can do more things themselves, without having to rely on others. People who are blind can read the newspaper (through screen readers that read aloud text from the computer), and so can people with cognitive disabilities who have trouble processing written information. People who are deaf can get up-to-the-minute news that was previously available only to those who could hear radio or TV, and so can people who are blind and deaf (through dynamic Braille displays). People with quadriplegia who cannot move their arms or legs can shop online to get groceries, gadgets, and gifts delivered. People who cannot speak can participate in online discussions, such as through blog comments.
If you really understand how the Web can drastically change lives, you do what you can to make it accessible.
To what degree are developers and designers incorporating accessibility?
Many websites are more accessible now than they were a decade ago. Many large companies now include accessibility considerations in their Web development process; however, it’s often too late in the process. One problem with that is that new technological developments are being conceived and developed without considering all their potential users, and thus are initially inaccessible. We still have a long way to go until accessibility is adequately integrated as “business as usual”.
We’re at a point where many Web designers and developers in some areas have at least heard of accessibility. Where there are laws related to web accessibility, people are more aware of Web accessibility standards. One of the things we’re focusing on now is helping the community better understand the human aspect of accessibility, with documents such as Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility and How People with Disabilities Use the Web.
What have some of the larger milestones been in the fight for accessibility?
A huge milestone was completion of W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 in December 2008, which was developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. This standard applies to more advanced technologies; has clearer criteria and is more precisely testable (with automated testing and human evaluation); and comes with significant supporting material and techniques for understanding and implementing WCAG 2. You can learn more about it from the WCAG Overview and the WCAG 2 blog post.
Other milestones include Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) for WYSIWYG editors, content management systems (CMS), blog software, and more; User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) for browsers; and development around WAI-ARIA for Accessible Rich Internet Applications.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has helped increase awareness of access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, as a basic human right. Accessibility policies around the world have raised awareness and established requirements for Web accessibility.
What are some common accessibility mistakes?
Developers: not including alternative text for images, not marking up headings and lists in HTML (and then using CSS for design), requiring the mouse (instead of making all functionality available via keyboard), not providing captions &/or transcripts for audio (podcasts, videos, etc.).
Designers: insufficient color contrast, wanting to impose a static design for everyone instead of allowing users to adapt the design to their needs.
Both: not understanding the basics of how people with disabilities use the Web so they can make their websites work well for everyone. (Often designers and developers who just try to meet accessibility standards without understanding these basics waste time and effort on solutions that aren’t best for users.)
What does the W3C do to facilitate accessibility education?
W3C established the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997 to address accessibility as part of W3C’s core work. Within W3C WAI is the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG). We develop online materials, presentations, etc. that are available free on the Web. You can get them through the WAI home page: www.w3.org/WAI
How did you get involved with Web accessibility?
I’m an accessibility evangelist. I’m a communicator. My background is in technical communications and user interface design.
I first got involved in accessibility out of personal necessity, after I began to have visual and physical problems making it difficult to use computers. It happened that the Trace R&D Center was nearby and I learned about software and hardware accessibility barriers and solutions largely from Gregg Vanderheiden and others there. At the time I was consulting on software user interface design and began to integrate accessibility into my work. As UI design transitioned to Web, helping clients address accessibility got easier due to the existing work already done on Web accessibility by Trace, W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), and others.
Once I learned the power of the Web to enable people with disabilities to interact with the world online, and personally experienced barriers when websites weren’t developed well, and got to know more people with disabilities, I was hooked.
I’ve been on staff for 7 years. Before that I was an “Invited Expert” participating mostly in the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG). Before that I was a user of W3C technical specifications, especially the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). I guess that adds up to over a decade.
What does the future of accessibility look like 5 years from now?
What I would like is that accessibility is fully integrated into Web tools, education, and processes. I look forward to all users, including people with disabilities, being accounted for in designing and developing all websites, Web applications, Web authoring tools, Web browsers and other “user agents”, technical specifications, and other Web technologies. Then we can all realize the massive benefits of an accessible Web.