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Web Site Accessibility – Its Just Good Sense

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Most of us already know it’s good business to have a presence on the World Wide Web. Since millions of people from all over the world use the Web each day, having a web site is one of the best ways to increase market share and audience reach. However, even companies with a web site could be missing out on the full potential the Web offers, if the content on their site is not accessible to the widest audience possible. Unfortunately, many web site owners create barriers to their content without realizing it. When this happens, their visitors often get frustrated and go elsewhere and the company loses that potential business to a competitor.

In the context of web site design, accessibility is a measure of how easy it is to access, read, and understand the content of a web site. Anything that prevents a person from obtaining needed information makes that content inaccessible. Just as computers vary by operating system, processor speed, screen size, memory, and networking abilities, users vary too. They have different skills, different ability levels and other constraints that may prevent them from doing things in ways that we take for granted.

Just as we take people with disabilities into consideration when constructing public buildings, we should also consider their needs in the public space we call the Internet. Some of the people who are affected by inaccessible web sites are the estimated 40-45 million blind and 135 million visually impaired people in the world. Many of them use computers with the help of screen readers and other assistive technologies. Other users who have motor impairments that limit muscle control or mobility have a difficult time using a keyboard or mouse. Users who are hearing impaired or find themselves in noisy environments will not be able to access audio content unless there is a text alternative available. Additionally, many users may still be limited to low-bandwidth applications because of the technology they have chosen to use (such as PDAs and web-enabled cell phones), or are forced by economic circumstances to use older systems.

There are also ethical and legal reasons why we should make our web sites accessible. By law, federal web sites and those of entities the government does business with must be accessible to people with disabilities. Even though private sector sites are not yet legally obliged to comply with accessibility guidelines, people who feel they have been discriminated against have already filed lawsuits against some corporations. By complying with these guidelines now, you may protect your business from costly litigation and negative P.R. in the future.

Apart from the disability issues, there are other compelling reasons for building an accessible web site. For one thing, studies show that by designing for accessibility, you can also reduce fatigue, increase speed, decrease errors, and decrease learning time for all users. Additionally, you contribute to the efficiency of your web site since less site maintenance will be required, and you also help reduce the load being placed on your server and your server connections. Search engines will more effectively be able to index your content if it is presented in an accessible format.

Many web site owners are now in the process of redesigning sites they built several years ago. If you are one of them, now is the perfect time to plan for accessibility. The good news is that it’s fairly easy and inexpensive and accessibility doesn’t have to limit creativity. If you are outsourcing your web site project, make sure the developer you hire considers users at every stage of the process, since usability is the first step towards accessibility. Usability is the invisible quality of your web site that makes it easy to learn, easy to use, easy to remember, resistant to errors, and aesthetically pleasing. From the user’s perspective, usability can make the difference between performing tasks on your site accurately and completely or not, and enjoying the experience or feeling frustrated.

There are many resources on the Web to help you understand the laws and regulations regarding accessibility and how to implement the guidelines (see below). Make sure any developer you hire is familiar with these guidelines and can build your site to comply with them.

Clearly, there is a significant number of users whose needs are not being considered often enough as we design web sites. This oversight not only affects users with disabilities, but also prevents web site owners from reaching the audiences that may be most interested in their information, products and online services. When you consider that the great power of the World Wide Web is in its universality, it’s just good business to build web sites with accessibility in mind.

Resources:

  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines W3C evaluation, repair, and transform tools for developers
  • Federal Web Accessibility Guidelines
  • Illinois Web Accessibility Guidelines

    For more information on Web site accessibility or any of the other Development services offered by ICS Advantage email info@icsadvantage.com or visit www.icsadvantage.com/software_dev.asp

    Joni Garcia is a writer and web consultant for ICS Advantage, LLC (a member of Sikich Group, LLC), where her specialties include information architecture, usability and accessibility.

    Web Site Accessibility – Its Just Good Sense
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