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Beyond Specifications: Towards a Practical Methodology for Evaluating Web Accessibility

Panayiotis Koutsabasis, Evangelos Vlachogiannis, and Jenny S. Darzentas

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2010, pp. 157 - 171

Article Contents


The availability of web technology does not ensure universal access to the web. As the web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) initiative explains “at the click of a mouse, the world can be ‘at your fingertips’—that is, if you can use a mouse... and if you can see the screen... and if you can hear the audio” (WebAIM, Introduction section, para 1). In this way, web accessibility has come to mean taking account of the needs of people with disabilities that encompass both physical and cognitive impairments. In this regard, Tim Berners-Lee famously noted that “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect” (WAI, n.d., sidebar). Indeed for some people with disabilities, access to the web is paramount.  Lynn Holdsworth, screen reader user, web developer, and programmer said, “For me being online is everything. It’s my hi-fi, my source of income, my supermarket, my telephone. It’s my way in” (European Blind Union, n.d., p. 6).

Increasingly, it has been understood that accessibility concerns every user, designer, and business owner. The ethical stand that calls for providing equal opportunities to all has for long ceased to be the main argument for ensuring web accessibility. Perhaps the most important misconception about accessibility is that it does refer only to people with special needs. Designing for accessibility addresses other user access issues as well, such as, performance for low network speed and usable access under constrained environmental technical point of view. Designing for accessibility promotes good technical design, and implementation that has obvious implications for web site maintenance and extensibility regarding content and look and feel (Koutsabasis, 2010). The business aspects of web accessibility are also significant, especially if we take into account that people with special needs are not only those that suffer from permanent disabilities but also other groups such as the ever increasing aging population. According to the United Nations Statistics on Human Functioning and Disability the percentage of people with disabilities in most western countries is estimated between 8% and 20% of the total population; for example, the results from related surveys for Canada (1996) show that a total of 15.5% of the population are people with disabilities; for Australia (1993), 18%; Germany (1992), 8.4%; New Zealand, 20%; USA (1994), 15%; and so on (2010).

Despite the large amount of work on web accessibility, the vast majority of web sites are still not accessible. Loiacono and McCoy’s (2006) study evaluated the web accessibility of a large number of web sites. The study indicated that only 23% of the U.S.’s federal homepages were accessible, while this percentage dropped to 11% for non-profit organizations and an even more disappointing 6% for corporate homepages. Because it is understood that accessibility of content seems to make the usability of sites better, there is interest in making sites more accessible, and by extension more usable, but it is difficult. Lazar, Dudley-Sponaugle, and Greenidge’s (2004) study of web masters’ perceptions about web accessibility reports that “most webmasters support the concept of web accessibility, but cited roadblocks to accessibility such as lack of time, lack of training, lack of managerial support, lack of client support, inadequate software tools, and confusing accessibility guidelines” (p. 284).

The current set of web accessibility tools and specifications have a highly technical orientation and need expert knowledge for their comprehension and application. Nor are there any widely used methodologies that encompass these into some practical form for practitioners. Also, the usability of these tools and specifications per se is an issue; as with most specialist groups, those working on accessibility have tended to develop a jargon that makes their use difficult (Kapsi, Vlachogiannis, Darzentas, & Spyrou, 2009). Thus the failure to address web accessibility can be attributed to the lack of practical integrated approaches for universal design and evaluation of web applications. As legislation for web accessibility enforcement is being developed in several countries and the web is changing to web 2.0 technologies and applications, it is important that HCI researchers, interaction design practitioners, and usability professionals have a clear understanding of the use of practical methodologies that encompass the essential issues that need to be considered for accessible web applications.

This paper contributes to both issues of awareness and use of web accessibility by (a) reviewing the current state of the art in web accessibility tools, specifications, and methods; (b) illustrating an example of practical web accessibility evaluation that shows typical accessibility problems that can be identified in contemporary web sites; and (c) proposing a practical methodological framework for web accessibility evaluation.

The structure of this paper is as follows. First the Related Work section describes the present state of affairs with regard to the web accessibility specifications, methods, and tools. In the light of this overview, the next section presents an example of the web accessibility evaluation process, discussing accessibility problems that are typical of many other contemporary web sites. However, this process is part of the proposed methodology, which is explained in detail in following section. The methodology offers a practical use of tools, specifications, and practices, and consists of the following phases: (a) identification of user requirements and setting up of accessibility goals, (b) web accessibility evaluation and redesign process, and (c) establishment and follow-up of accessibility policy. The proposed methodology offers a practical means to approach and tackle the issue of web accessibility and provides readers with a framework within which to situate existing and future tools and specifications. Finally the last sections offer a summary and conclusions of this work and the practitioner’s take away.

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