The Need for Accessible Web Design

    September 5, 2006

Given the many excellent reasons to make provisions for disabled users when creating a web site, why do so many professionals in the web design industry ignore this important facet of the online community?

With the total number of disabled individuals ranging around the 500 million mark globally, surfers suffering from a disability represent a not inconsiderable proportion of internet users. In spite of this, the Paciello Group estimates that upwards of 95% of web sites still suffer from ‘barriers to access’ for handicapped internet users.

And yet, those web designers who ignore disabled surfers during the creation of their sites are actually hindering their own promotional efforts through their disregard for this important aspect of the industry.

It is a fact, though an often ignored one, that search engine spiders view web pages in much the same manner as the browsers used by disabled surfers.

Google’s own webmaster guidelines recommend that designers check their pages through a text-only browser such as Lynx in order to establish whether they contain obstacles preventing them from being indexed effectively, since the same conditions affecting disability access can also, in many cases, affect search engine spider access.

Not only does this disregard for a particular user group and its consequences have to count as one of life’s ultimate ironies, it is also a sad testament to the web design industry as a whole.

In an age when the rights of the disabled community have to be considered by just about every sector of commerce and industry, the internet as a whole has yet to catch up with legislation covering the real world, though this situation is slowly changing.

Whilst the United States of America has implemented “Section 508” of the Rehabilitation Act, the European Union has issued a resolution concerning the importance of web accessibility.

The EU government has also strongly encouraged its member states to advocate strict adherence to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and will eventually introduce further measures ensuring “full access of the net”.

Although concrete legislation on disability access is still some way off and will prove difficult to enforce given the very nature of the internet, there are no good reasons to stop the web design industry from providing accessible web sites even at this stage.

After all, as the Google webmaster guidelines so rightly point out, it is in the designer’s best interests to ensure accessibility in order to provide user-friendly information to disabled surfers whilst at the same time aiding their own promotional efforts.

Although industry awareness of the disability access issue is growing, a large proportion of designers need to educate themselves on the overall implications of non-compliance with generally accepted standards. The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative provides a good starting point for those wanting to learn more.

An accomplished copywriter, Sasch Mayer has been writing content for web and print for well over a decade.
He is currently living in the Republic of Cyprus and working under contract to IceGiant Web Design.