Ten per cent of the population have some form of disability that prevents them from using the Web through conventional means.
Here’s how to check your site’s accessibility
The Web is about to celebrate the 10 th anniversary of its inception by Tim Berners-Lee back in the fall of 1989. Since its very beginning the primary goal of Berners-Lee’s Web was to make information accessible to everyone.
So it was no surprise that the W3 Consortium (the organization that oversees Web standards, headed by Berners-Lee) developed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). It used the occasion of the 8 th annual W3 conference (held in Toronto in May) to promote Version 1.0 of the WAI Guidelines, officially published on May 5.
How important is the WAI? Support for the issue of Web accessibility has reached the highest levels of government throughout the world, including attention from Industry Canada and the White House. According to U.S. vice-president Al Gore “…it is essential that this new medium be accessible to everyone.”
So what’s the big deal? Anyone with a computer, Internet connection and Web browser can view and the use the Web, right? The problem (according to the W3) is that 10 per cent of the population have some form of disability that prevents them from using the Web through conventional means.
The guidelines also deal with making sites more accessible to those with older browsers or older technology (such as slower modems). The W3 is careful to ensure their guidelines make sense and not put undue pressure on Web developers.
So for the W3, accessibility addresses both technological and human factors.
For example, Web pages that rely on Java Script or applets may not execute properly on older browsers and new hardware platforms including Microsoft’s Pocket Internet Explorer, Palm Pilots, Windows CE and WebPhone.
Or consider the challenges blind surfers face. They wouldn’t experience a Web site through a monitor, but instead would use browser-assistive technology such as screen readers or Braille displays. Paralyzed individuals might rely on voice-based browsing to navigate a site because they can’t use a mouse.
One of the W3’s main focuses is the use of multimedia. Multimedia relies on images and sound, yet to those who are blind, deaf or just working in a noisy environment the full benefit of multimedia can’t be extracted. The WAI guidelines suggest providing alternatives. In the case of a video presentation, offer the script in text format as an alternative.
The guidelines go on to cover basic concepts such as the use of colour and problems surrounding older monitors and colour blindness, to other HTML elements such as the use of frames and table programming.
To help Web developers the W3 has established three levels of priority (or conformance). Failure to meet priority one means some groups will not be able to access information; missing priority two makes it difficult for some groups to access information; and failure to meet priority three means some people may find it difficult to access information.
To assist Web developers in ensuring sites are as accessible as possible, several validators are being developed. These validators will assess just how accessible your site is and point out problem areas.
Validators include “Bobby” (www.cast.org/bobby/) and W3’s Validation Service (validator.w3.org). The use of these validators does not only ensure that your site is accessible, they can catch minor design flaws which can affect more then those with disabilities.
A developer can also refer to the W3’s own checklist (www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505/full-checklist.html). This consists of 50 checkpoints, covering the 14 guidelines. The checkpoints are timeless, so they’ll be as applicable tomorrow as they are today.
The simplest way to ensure a site is 100 per cent compatible is to test it using a non-graphical browser. If it provides the same information then you’ve succeeded.
Ultimately it’s a business decision to make a site accessible or not. But with the growing number of people accessing information from Web sites, can a business really afford to ignore 10 per cent of its potential market?
K’necht is president of K’nechtology Inc., a Toronto-based technology consulting company specializing in intranet and Internet technologies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org