Please Note that this article is no longer at ExtremeTech and many of the links are from 2002, so they don't work anymore. This is part of what this article was to encourage avoiding. The world goes on. (Note from John C. Fish 08-07-2011)

The State of Web Accessibility

February 15, 2002

     By 

    We all know the Internet is the "Information Super-Highway". But due to many things happening on the WWW today -- including viruses, worms, DDoS attacks, increased subscriber bases, poor line quality, poor quality of Web Page Design, inefficient coding, broken or misnamed links, graphics not properly optimized for the web (or being called from another server), and large animations and/or presentations loading without the user requesting them, the efficiency of obtaining information from the Web is steadily decreasing. A poorly designed web page is one of the areas we can readily improve, and that is the focus of this article.

    Because of the present "since we can do it, we should" mentality of general web design across the WWW, a large proportion of web pages, and entire sites, are nearly inaccessible, or at least seemingly obtuse in design. Soon only people with the newest equipment, software, and a high-speed connection will be able to quickly and efficiently get the information they need from the WWW.

    We are headed for a major traffic jam, not only for disabled people, but also for all people that are not in the "elite" class of computer users-- the information Super-Highway on ramps will be closed. By designing web pages in accordance with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the information available on the WWW can become available to anyone, anyplace, and on any piece of equipment.

     Accessibility on the WWW is an issue that involves not only having efficient coding in web pages, and images optimized for the Web, but that the end product will be displayable on any PC web browsing device, and that the individual will be able to connect to, and navigate, the information available. All this requires testing in a variety of browsers and a commitment to emphasizing content over presentation.

    My senior advisor and friend James Pickering, explains it eloquently. The following is a quote from a page titled "What is Web Content Accessibility all about?" at James Pickering's Tools for Web Page Authors website.

The first thing that comes to mind is accessibility for people with disabilities -- and that indeed is the main thrust -- but most Internet users have only a vague concept of how that applies to the World Wide Web.

    As one of my friends put it "I always thought this concept of accessibility referred to wheelchair ramps, hand rails, instructions in Braille and extra wide toilet stalls -- how does all this relate to the Internet?" A fair question that deserves a thorough explanation.

    As you are composing or reading a web page in the customary way imagine that:

  • You are blind and have to use a special device to read the text as it appears on the page from left to right, top to bottom -- images will be invisible and you will have to rely on explanatory text provided by the author to find out what they depict.
  • You are deaf or your hearing is severely diminished and therefore you cannot hear any audio information or music provided by the author.
  • You cannot use your fingers or arms due to physical impairment and you are unable to use a mouse. You may have to use a head or mouth held stylus of some kind -- you have to hope the author provides for navigating and actuating hyperlinks using the keyboard.
  • You are so color blind that many color combinations confuse you -- maybe you cannot distinguish between red and green at all.
  • You are so visually impaired that you can only read the screen with a powerful magnifying device or browser -- you hope the author has used easily recognizable text fonts and good contrasting backgrounds.
  • You only have access to a text reading browser so that no images are displayed at all.
  • You have cerebral/central nervous system dysfunction such as palsy or epilepsy that affects your perceptive and retentive capabilities.

    ..... And so it goes -- there are issues of language interpretation, old and slow computers and ancient browsers that only recognize a few text fonts and a limited color palette -- imagine what it would be like if you were deaf-blind!

    Web page accessibility for People with Disabilities is important in many ways, not the least of which is sheer humaneness and consideration for fellow human beings who yearn to freely access and enjoy the many commonplace things that non-disabled people take for granted. This right to enjoyment of life on the same level as non-disabled people is severely encumbered on the Internet -- or even thwarted altogether -- by the general absence of adequate Web Content Accessibility on the World Wide Web.

    But there are other considerations too:

  • People with Disabilities represent a large and formidable commercial resource for those who offer Web pages with products to sell. People with Disabilities are [a] disproportionately high [volume] users of the Internet for shopping -- and you can bet that they seek out and frequent Web pages that are the most accessible -- those that are considerate of their needs and friendly to them. So there is a considerable commercial component to Web Content Accessibility.
  • And there are sometimes legal implications attending Web Content Accessibility. Many countries (USA, Great Britain, Australia et al.) now have laws requiring full Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities that extends to Government Agency Web pages at all levels. In many instances this also extends to Web pages of public institutions and facilities that receive government financial support or recognition.

    Please note this link to Pickering's Web Pages and this link to visit the Australian Government Accessibility Standards page.

    There are also incidental benefits inherent in accessible Web page production for Web page authors:

    Producing a Web page -- no matter what the intended purpose or rationale -- is somewhat like operating a restaurant. You want people to visit the first time they are aware of it, you want them to stay and partake of the fare you offer and you want them to return -- again and again.

    Well, the same things that make successful restaurants make successful Web pages: comfortable and pleasant surroundings, fast and friendly service, wholesome and enjoyable fare, well maintained facilities and a reliable consistency of operation.

    Of course you have to change the concept and terminology a little for Web pages:

  • Pleasing appearance -- uncluttered and emphasizing content over presentation.
  • FAST loading -- most visitors are impatient and quickly abandon slow loading pages -- less than 20 seconds is the goal.
  • User friendliness should shine through on every page.
  • All information -- and links -- should be current and up to date.
  • Operation and navigation should be consistent from section to section, page to page.

    Even for sighted people, a flashy exterior with all kinds of embellishments (bells & whistles) has very little to do with success -- it may get a lot of people to visit the first time, but it is the return trade that is the measure of success! For all people it is the quality of the information and the directness and simplicity with which it is presented that are the important elements for faithful visitors (customers).

    Of course, there will always be some that violate these rules and still maintain a large and faithful following -- but they had better offer something exceptionally unique to insure continued success.

    Now here is the really amazing thing. If Web page authors follow the general principles of Web Content Accessibility as outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in the following document -- "W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines" -- they will automatically produce pages that accomplish the foregoing objectives.

    If you construct Web pages that are fully accessible to People with Disabilities, they will: be pleasing to the eye, fast loading, easy to maintain, present information in a direct and simple way, navigate with consistency, and will function satisfactorily in all browsers and rendering devices. How about that for a desired outcome?!

    But Web pages that are designed to meet Accessibility Standards do not have to be visually unexciting. Images, colors, and a variety of font styles can be incorporated into pages using the correct techniques. However, Web page authors should carefully review the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to insure that their use of these features is in concert with good accessibility practices. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) should be used for page layout thereby separating content from presentation. However, it should be noted that pages should display correctly when style sheets are turned off or not useable -- as is often the case with old browsers. This is a specific requirement of the U.S. Government Section 508 Accessibility Standards, the Australian Government Accessibility Standards, and the W3C WCAG 1.0. It will not be long (hopefully soon) before all browsers will allow users to substitute their own style sheets when viewing pages in order to meet their personal tastes and needs. This will be a great boon for Accessibility.

    There is much learning, and often relearning, involved in producing accessible Web pages.

    Fortunately a multitude of online references, tools and resources are available to serve committed Web page authors.

     How many times have you experienced annoying delays in retrieving pages on the WWW? And, how often have you been frustrated in your efforts to navigate those pages? We have a tendency to blame our ISP, computer, or Operating System for these problems, but the fact is they can be caused by many other factors-- especially improper Web page design. On the other hand, Web pages that have been created by authors who are conscientious in their efforts to produce interoperable Web pages will render quickly and be easily navigated.

    One of your questions may be, "What can I do, just surf and put up with inadequate pages? The answer is definitely "no!" You can help elevate the quality of Web pages in general, and change the very face of the WWW, by becoming knowledgeable regarding good Web page design practices (and WCA principles) and forcefully complaining to Webmasters and site owners whenever you find improperly designed pages.

    Cathy Hardman, the Executive Director for Access World Design and Development (AWD&D) says it well, (quoted from www.awdd.org/about.htm):

    We adhere to the firm belief that accessibility of web content, (freedom of information), must be supported to the full extent of our ability. Freedom of information is the cornerstone of our government and is a crucial part of maintaining a democratic society.

    We should strive to close the gap referred to as the "digital divide." Accessibility of web content is tantamount to world peace and understanding. All people of the world must be given the opportunity to broaden their horizons by making full use of our technological age.

    We must provide web content that is easily downloaded, viewable in all browsers, and on the most ancient of computers.

    No human being should be denied access to information because they cannot afford the most sophisticated machine, the most up to date browser and software, or the best in Internet service.

    AWD&D has a dual purpose. We are dedicated to making the virtual world accessible, and in so doing give our disabled associates the opportunity to work, create, and contribute to the fabric of our society. The disabled are another group of people who need to access information in the most user-friendly fashion. It is the mission of AWD&D to recruit, train, and employ as many disabled independent contractors as humanly possible to tackle the job of making the WWW universally accessible.

    As business people start to understand that sales increase and more visitors return to sites when pages display fast and navigate easily, you will see well designed and smooth functioning Web pages, which, no doubt about it, directly affect their profit margin.

  • Example 1: If I am shopping on the WWW, and surf to a business site looking for something I want to buy, if the page does not come up quickly, or I'm waiting for a video presentation I didn't ask for that takes a long time to load, I will go someplace else.
  • Example 2: If I go to a page that has a lot of banner ads for other places, (it reminds me of shopping in a busy shopping mall, which is the reason I shop on the WWW), I will go someplace else.

    (I could provide several more examples, but the key point here is that I will go someplace else).

    If I surf to a site, the page loads fast, has informative links helping me to decide which product or service I need, (or want), and easy site navigation to actually make the purchase, I will return over and over for anything that site provides.

    Web site accessibility is not software or hardware that can come and go in this changing market. It is value added to your business that will increase its outreach and profitability for years to come.

    There is also the disabled market to consider. Many disabled people literally live on their computers-- it's not only their entertainment, but also a link to a world where they can perform as equals to non-disabled people. If a site caters to the needs of the disabled market, they will do business with you. This equates to $175 billion dollars a year of discretionary income that is virtually ignored. (See Louisiana Business Leadership Network, www.lbln.org/).

    One such business catering to the disabled is KnowBrainer; Lunis Orcutt realizes the importance of Accessible Web Design with his business. KnowBrainer is an add-on product to Dragon Naturally Speaking that adds functionality through an extended set of commands for the Voice Recognition Software. Because of his interaction with Medical Personnel and the disabled who use his product, he understands the importance of being able to have anyone on any piece of equipment be able to access his web site.

    I am constantly confronted with Web Professionals who directly state that optimal code is a waste of time, that they can make more in one day than I can in a week, that I should just crank out my pages in FrontPage (Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, NetFusion, et al.), go home, eat dinner, play with the dogs, watch TV, and not worry about it-- just paste a "Better if Viewed in Internet Explorer" sticker on it, and forget it.

     As businesses begin to appreciate that featuring Web pages that are accessible in accordance with the W3C guidelines is just good business, Web Developers are going to be held more accountable for their design. And businesses will employ Web Developers who are informed about, and adhere to the principles of accessible web design. They will also soon discover that presenting WCA compliant Web pages can lead to securing business from US Government sources that now recognize the need for WCA compliance.

    Conforming to accessibility issues and having pages display acceptably in all browsers is a complex, and sometimes time consuming job that is usually best solved by using the simple, straightforward design principles that have been employed in the publishing trade for centuries. An accessible site is easier to maintain, upgrade, and update, and is actually easier to produce once the fundamentals are understood. It helps immeasurably to have an assortment of tested templates available.

    Building a fully accessible web site is not easy, and can take a fair amount of time, especially if the customer wants things that just can't be made accessible-- so I have practiced saying "No, that will interfere with the accessible functioning of the page" -- and I have lost work over it. I'm sure I will lose more as time goes on, but I will not knowingly do anything to make the WWW worse than it already is-- I want to make it as accessible as I can. And I can tell you from experience, it is more difficult talking the customer out of something that has already been done, than doing it correctly in the first place.

    I consider developing efficient code as being as important as optimizing graphics for download time- if there is a poorly written piece of scripting, or if the graphic links are misspelled or not grammatically correct, it will slow the download to a crawl while the browser determines that the graphic is not available. Another common problem is linking to graphics outside of the server where the page exists (this includes linking to banner ads) -- you can get prolonged waits for the graphic to become available. I see this as a coding problem for lack of better way to put it, (i.e. the nut behind the keyboard). Unfortunately, there are many examples of this being done all over the Web. Keeping an eye on the code, running the pages through several browsers to see how they look, (compromises sometimes need to be made), and using the validators at the W3C, Bobby, WDG, and (for XHTML) O'Reilly, help to insure clean code before it gets on the WWW.

    Also, since these validators are simple to use, (just put in the URL of the web page you want to check), any surfer can check a page also, and report their findings back to the Webmaster, Web Designer, and/or Web Site Owner. Another important issue is in the graphics composition and design. Optimizing graphics for the WWW insures acceptable download time. A graphic optimized for the web can be 1/10th the size of a non-optimized graphic, (or less). I personally use Gimp, a freeware program with remarkable capabilities. Both Windows and Linux versions are available. I keep the size of my pages so they load in less than 20 seconds on a 28.8 modem. (This is sometimes a real challenge). One way of doing this is to have one page of information to a web page utilizing links to additional pages of information, instead of putting a mass of information on one page.

    

    If you already know valid HTML 4.01, the jump to XHTML is relatively easy.

    The W3C has made design requirements for XHTML,

    At AWD&D all our pages are hand written in XHTML 1.1 with CSS2, in accordance with the accessibility recommendations of the W3C, Bobby, and WDG, and our advisors' and staff conduct research into accessibility, including extended effort into having our pages display properly in all browsers.

    We have in-site links, not only for the disabled, but to make navigation of our site as straightforward as possible, including:

  • A Site Map, as the first navigational link on the page, and as the last link at the bottom of each page
  • A Jump Link to the main body text on each page
  • A consistent look and placement of navigational links from page to page; in-site navigational links in the top menu
  • Reference and out-of-site links in the side menu
  • No tables, (except for tabular data), frames, or unnecessary scripting and/or image motion
  • Standardized color of all elements from page to page, and properly contrasting text to background colors
  • Consistent look and feel from page to page.
  • Fast loading with efficient coding and image design.
It is our intention that anyone, anywhere, on any standard Internet browser can access our information, in a user-friendly atmosphere, with a minimum of unnecessary distractions.

    Also part of the W3C recommendations is the elimination of tables, except for tabular data. Unfortunately, tables are used extensively throughout the WWW to hold EVERYTHING. I see tables used to hold a couple of spacer gifs when a div, p, or span could do just fine, most of the WYSIWYG's add tables automatically, FOR EVERYTHING. I don't use tables, (except for tabular data), and all my pages presently are written in XHTML 1.1 with CSS 2.

    I have spent hundreds of hours testing and experimenting with the best ways of eliminating tables, and still occasionally find another piece to the puzzle, and readjust my thinking another notch. I realize that at present the WWW is "tables dependent", and I have a lot of work ahead of me proving it is possible to produce acceptable Web pages without them. I have accomplished the first baby steps with this position; it is a concept that will become a necessity in the future.

    CSS2 is another necessary step, and getting your head in line with the "Box Model" makes this much easier. Browser support for CSS2 is still coming, (definitely not perfect yet), so it has to be used with caution. But in the long run, it makes updating and maintaining web sites much easier -- with one change in a line of code, you can change the look and feel of all pages using a style sheet.

    I recently started working with a couple of properties in CSS2, fixed and z-index-- lots of fun-- you can get an image to show at the precise time someone is scrolling down a page, and have text appear and disappear. The z-index sets how the images are located in relation to the z axis (towards or away from you), and a higher integer makes it "stack" closer to you. See this link. It worked great in all the browsers in Linux, (Mozilla based browsers), then I rebooted to try it in IE 6, and those properties are presently unsupported. Though I found this disappointing, it proves that even after fully validating your code, testing in a variety of browsers is necessary. The entire link above is an incredible resource.

    I work with others in my organization to ensure efficient browser rendition and functional consistency on a wide array of equipment. I try to accumulate all available information and utilize it appropriately in order to ensure uniformity of presentation. Our main endeavor at present is to emphasize server-side utilization in order to rely less and less on the software on the client's computer. Having as much as possible run on the server helps handheld devices function correctly, and efficient web serving to all equipment is assured.

    Idealistically, a web page should be viewable, (maybe not exactly as the author intended, but close), on any computer, with any connection (with a reasonable download time, such as 28.8 as a minimum) -- we use under 20 seconds at 28.8 baud with delays as a guideline, as does the Bobby Validation Service, which also adheres to the W3C guidelines).

     An excellent example of an accessible web site is (sorry, no longer available...). As one of AWD&D's advisors, Ken is my Perl Guru, and an excellent advisor in what web accessibility is all about. All 60+ pages on the site are generated by a single Perl script (which ties into the templates written in valid XHTML 1.1 with CSS2) -- this forces the whole site to have a consistent look and feel as well as making it self-maintaining. As a simple example, the copyright date changed from 2000-2001 to 2000-2002 automatically on every page without requiring any intervention from Ken. The advanced CSS2 features, (such as Pseudo-frame Mode), are only implemented (by default) in browsers that can handle them (which ties in with fixed positioning and the use of the z-index property).

    Both James Pickering's and Ken's sites hold the WAI-AAA rating and also make use of the Resource Description Framework (RDF/XML).

    Through the work of people from all over the world who are dedicated to making the virtual world accessible, an accessible WWW is not only possible, but also necessary for a better quality of life.

References

    Accessibility and HTML

    XHTML

    CSS

    

    Validators and DTD's

    

    Guidelines

    

    Glanz Suggested Reading

  • ITCH Official Website
  • Opera Software
  • A.S.P.H.I.--Information Resources for People with Disabilities.
  • SSB Technologies: the premier provider of Web accessibility solutions. End-to-end solutions include software, training and consulting to help corporate and government IT organizations make their Web sites and intranets accessible to people with disabilities in compliance with Federal law.
  • The Homepage of the HTML Writers Guild's AWARE Center--AWARE stands for Accessible Web Authoring Resources and Education, and its mission is to serve as a central resource for Web authors for learning about Web accessibility.
  • WebABLE!--a definitive listing of all disability and accessibility related Web sites on the Internet, in a huge database.
  • Adaptive Technology Resource Center, University of Toronto. Everything from accessibility of authoring tools to accessible online courseware, the Adaptive Technology Resource Center develops some very exciting advances in the field of Web accessibility.
  • The Special Needs Opportunity Windows (SNOW). A project supporting educators of students with special needs.
  • Trace Research & Development Center, University of Wisconsin. The Trace Center is dedicated to a cooperative effort to change the world and make technology more usable by everyone.
  • Center on Disabilities, California State University Northridge. CSUN sponsors an annual conference on assistive technology for people with disabilities; many of the proceedings from 1999 (and earlier years) focus on Web accessibility and are available on the Web.
  • The Access Board--The U.S. Government's Access Board, the only federal agency with the primary mission of increasing accessibility for people with disabilities. They are working on recommendations for accessible government Web sites.

    (A quick note to Ralph Glanz: thanks for helping to accumulate this list.) Addendum: Ralph Glanz and Brian Masinick, you were major contributors to this article and helping me to be published. May Glanz Rest In Peace.