Web content accessibility: Is it really accessible for everyone?

Almost anyone who has access to Internet is familiar with how websites, apps and other kinds of web content systems work. They understand the navigation mechanisms and the way the information is displayed. But, how people with disabilities interact with the same content is a different story.

Access to information has been considered a right since December 14th, 1946 when the United Nations, at their General Assembly, recognized that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.1 Two years later, this statement became an obligation for every member of the United Nations with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.2

In the digital era, technology has made it easier for people to search and get the information they need for any purpose, including: research, education, interests, entertainment, work and so on. In the present, with the convergence of Internet and mobile devices, we are constantly connected to the web and consume a wide range of types of content on a daily basis. But this does not necessarily mean that the web content is completely accessible.

What is web accessibility?

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) created by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), defines web accessibility as the way people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web.3 Also it emphasizes how this can benefit everyone else, especially older people. According to the WAI, web accessibility must consider every kind of disability that could affect the user experience while surfing the web: visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological. Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web, believes that: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”4

The importance of web accessibility for making web based content reachable for everyone is clear, but we need to understand how different types of disabilities can create a significant barrier. These barriers will often exclude certain users from navigating through the web, becoming a new form of discrimination.

The World Wide Web Consortium, on the draft “How People with Disabilities Use the Web”5, has created scenarios that describe how people with disabilities use the web. The objective of this draft is to study the effect of web accessibility barriers and help developers to create accessible web based systems. The draft covers a wide variety of scenarios, such as: color blindness, repetitive stress injury, blindness, attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, limitations due to aging, Down syndrome and deaf – blindness.

Among these scenarios, I find it important to highlight a few that need special attention due to their probability and impact on users:

Mr. Lee, Online shopper with color blindness. Finds it difficult to read text content, he felt that text and images had poor color contrast because they all looked as if they use the same tone of brown. Some websites use colored based instructions, such as searching for the red square with the special price. This will represent a challenge for him.

Ms. Laitinen, Accountant with blindness. She uses screen reader software for speech output. She navigates using the keyboard, jumping from one heading to the next. She does this to get an idea about the content and find what she is interested in. If the website is not properly structured, she won’t be able to jump between headings and would have to read everything before finding if there is something she might use. She will avoid these sites because she thinks it is a waste of time.

Mr. Yunus, Retiree with low vision, hand tremor and mild short-term memory loss. He has difficulty reading small text and will usually try to enlarge the font. He doesn’t like to use the browser’s zoom option because it distorts all the images, but most of the websites are not programmed for font enlargement, making content overlap itself. This simple error will result in poor user experience and frustration.

The scenarios6 displayed before constitute a strong evidence of the probability that browsing a website, which is easily used by almost everyone, could become a real challenge for people with any kind of disability. The responsibility of avoiding this happening will fall on everyone who is involved in the project, but primarily on the web development team.

The WAI has created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 7, which is basically a set of recommendations aimed at web developers, for making Web content more accessible. Successfully following these guidelines will not only help people with disabilities access the content but also will make the website accessible for everyone.

As a support tool, there is a quick reference to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines requirements: “How to Meet WCAG 2.0”8. This tool has become a valuable resource that helps web developers to accomplish the goal. The guidelines referenced here are related to: text alternatives, adaptation, distinguish, keyboard accessibility, navigability, readability, predictability, input assistance and compatibility.

In addition to what can be done on the development process, there is also a wide array of software and special devices known as Assistive Technology. Microsoft Accessibility defines Assistive Technology as products that are designed to provide additional accessibility to individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments, and disabilities9. On this article, Microsoft describes in detail all the different types of assistive technology users can find currently available on the market (Microsoft, Types of Assistive Technology Products). Among the most commonly used, I can point out the following:

Alternative input devices. Users can control their computers without standard keyboard or mouse. For example: one-hand keyboards, eye tracking pointing devices, wands strapped to head, joysticks, touch screens.

Braille embossers. Braille translation software convert computer generated text into Braille and then print it on the embosser.

Light signaler alert. For users that cannot hear an audible computer alert, this device will flash a light signal every time a user interaction is required. Such as new email, incoming chat message or any kind of process that has been completed.

Screen readers. Intended for blind users, screen readers converts a graphic user interface into an audio user interface by reading everything that is displayed on the screen. Screen readers will verbalize text, graphics, navigation and buttons.

Assistive Technology helps improve the user’s experience but it won’t make a website that has been poorly developed, 100% accessible. Karl Groves, Pragmatic Accessibility Consultant, thinks that “Even in the best case scenario, assistive technologies can only render information to the user that is available from the system”10. Groves states that the only way to ensure a system works properly with assistive technologies is to build the system right (Can Assistive Technology Make a Website Accessible? 2012).

In 2009, the Australian Government published an online guide with a listing of compulsory requirements for all government agencies to consider while developing and maintaining their online presence11. One of the requirements refers specifically to Accessibility, which mandates: “Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 agencies must ensure that people with disabilities have the same fundamental rights to access information and services as others in the community.” (Accessibility. Australian Government Web Guide), this means that every single government agency had to implement the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 to their websites. Considering the fact that the requirement had to be fulfilled by December 31st, 2012 the Government created a Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy to implement Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.012.

The transition strategy official document has all the information required to perform the expected job and established a work plan divided in 3 phases. The first phase: Preparation, with the objective of helping agencies to determine their readiness to undergo the transition. The second phase: Transition, provided agencies the time and resources to acquire the skills and infrastructure for the implementation. The last phase: Implementation, represented the development process and testing of the new online presence based on WCAG 2.013.

Similar initiatives can be found on several other country’s laws and policies, such as the Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act. What follows is an excerpt of the clause 1A:

DEVELOPMENT, PROCUREMENT, MAINTENANCE, OR USE OF ELECTRONIC AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY.–When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency, including the United States Postal Service, shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology (…) individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities.14

There seems to be diverse initiatives with the same goal. Some of them come from groups of people that share a passion about the World Wide Web, others from software and hardware giants, others from governments and the rest from developers in general. All of these individuals and collectives come from different expertise backgrounds, they apply their knowledge in their own way and produce distinct results, but still, the goal is one: making web content accessible to everyone.

But, is this enough? Do all this efforts really fulfill the need of having a global usable and accessible web without limitations caused by knowledge, culture, technology, language or disability? I would like to think that it is enough, but it isn’t. Most of these practices are only applied on government related web systems, especially because it is a mandatory requirement.

I have been a web designer for a few years now. I have worked as a freelancer, as a teacher and as an employee at an important digital advertising agency, but I have not witnessed these types of initiatives being implemented in the process of website development.

The responsibility should not come as a mandatory requirement but as an ethical purpose. In any environment where web development takes place, every member of the team should be aware of Web Accessibility and practice the implementation of the guidelines as if it was a personal mandatory requirement. Everyone who is involved in the creation of web systems should realize how difficult the access to information can become for someone who presents a disability and take action to prevent it. When we start doing this we will be on the right path to create web content that is accessible for everyone.



(1) United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 59 (1), 65th Plenary Meeting, December 14, 1946.
(2) UNITED NATIONS. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved August 19, 2013, from URL: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
(3) SHAWN, H. (2005, February). Introduction to Web Accessibility. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Retrieved August 22, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php
(4) BRENERS-LEE, T. Accessibility. Web Design and Applications. W3C. Retrieved August 22, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility
(5) SHADI, A. (2012, August 1). How People with Disabilities Use the Web. W3C. Retrieved August 22, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/people-use-web/Overview.html
(6) SHADI, A. (2012, August 1). How People with Disabilities Use the Web: Stories of Web Users. W3C. Retrieved August 22, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/people-use-web/stories
(7) CALDWELL, B. (2008, December 11). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. W3C. Retrieved August 24, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/
(8) VANDERHEIDEN, G. (2012, January 3). How to Meet WCAG 2.0. W3C. Retrieved August 24, 2013, from: http://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/
(9) MICROSOFT. Types of Assistive Technology Products. Microsoft Accessibility. Retrieved August 26, 2013, from: http://www.microsoft.com/enable/at/types.aspx
(10) GROVES, K. (2012, April 19). Can Assistive Technology Make a Website Accessible?. Karl Groves. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from: http://www.karlgroves.com/2012/04/19/can-assistive-technology-make-a-website-accessible/
(11) AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT. Mandatory Requirements. Web Guide. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from: http://webguide.gov.au/mandatory-requirements/
(12) AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT. Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy. Department of Finance and Deregulation. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from: http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/wcag-2-implementation/index.html
(13) STEWARD, A. (2010, June). Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy. The Australian Government’s adoption and implementation of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0 (WCAG 2.0). Retrieved August 28, 2013, from: http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/wcag-2-implementation/docs/wcag-transition-strategy.pdf
(14) THE REHABILITATION ACT (1998, August 7). Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act. Section 508. Retrieved August 29, 2013, from: https://www.section508.gov/index.cfm?fuseAction=1998Amend


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