Universal Access

The Internet has the potential to be a wonderfully enabling technology for many people, and especially for people with sensory, physical and intellectual disabilities. It can provide many with a sense of intellectual and economic freedom that was, simply, unknown, previously.

There is no disability on the Internet. Stereotypes vanish inside an email message, or in a chat-room, or in an electronic business transaction. Some people may require assistive technology – such as screen-readers for persons with blindness or voice-input systems for persons with mobility impairments – to overcome some common barriers but, in the right environment, the rewards are enormous.

Universal accessibility aims to ensure that web sites are developed to serve the largest possible audience using the broadest range of hardware and software platforms, and that the needs of users with disabilities, are considered. The blind and visually impaired are just one group of users that are affected by the advances in the graphical nature of web sites. Dyslexics and those with poor physical coordination are examples of other groups.However, development and widespread use of assistive technology often lags far behind the introduction of new and inaccessible features on the Web.

Web site traffic statistics often show that visitors to a site are using a whole range of devices, web browsers and operating systems. These factors are important because a web site can look and behave differently depending on the techmology used to view it.

Some sites use complex screen layouts, and graphics without considering the accessibility implications. These sites are aimed at impressing and engaging the mainstream, non-disabled, visitor but they confuse and alienate people with visual, physical or cognitary impairments. New developments may be inaccessible to a wide range of web users, either because their hardware and software cannot support the new features, or because the feature was not designed with universal accessibility
in mind.

For example:

  • Will a web page offer the same access to information if viewed in a text-only browser compared to a graphical browser?
  • Does a text based page use simple language that is understandable by those with cognitive difficulties?
  • What does an informational page supply in the way of graphical assistance for people with reading difficulties?
  • Are online forms accesssible to users who cannot use a mouse or keyboard?

Nor is safe to assume that people will be using “standard technologies”.

There Is No Such Thing As A “Standard User”

Cumbersome, graphic-intensive, web pages take a significant time to download onto a visitor’s machine. Population levels in rural and remote areas may be too small to effectively support services such as broadband access. Older, less expensive computers may not be able to benefit from high-speed delivery systems.

Therefore, some sites may be inaccessible to a wide range of web users, either because their hardware and software cannot support the new features, or because the feature was not designed with universal accessibility in mind. In the case of disabled users, even assistive devices offer no guarantee that they will then be able to access or understand a poorly designed web page. The onus is on the site’s owner to deliver the site’s message in a way that allows everyone to benefit.

Web site developers can still make web pages that are both accessible and visually appealing by following good accessibility programming practices and using the accessibility tools and guidelines available.

Too many sites sport the disclaimer:

This site is best viewed using…

If you intend to use such a disclaimer, it should at least be honest and say:

This site is best viewed on my system and my monitor at my house.

For, if you haven’t incorporated a basic level of accessibility into your site’s design, that is about all you can claim with any conviction.