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Accessibility on the Web: The Web Accessibility Initiative

By Shawn Lawton Henry

Involving people with disabilities from the early stages of a project and including participants with disabilities in usability testing—improving the accessibility of tools and technologies; taking advantage of the overlap between designing for accessibility and for mobile devices; promoting the business case for web accessibility; all of these are aspects of the broad field of web accessibility.

Usability professionals who understand this broader perspective can better integrate accessibility into their own work and contribute to improving web accessibility overall. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is a key resource for usable web accessibility. WAI is a group within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) international web standards organization.

User-Centered Design with Standards for Usable Accessibility
WAI supports user-centered design (UCD) and other techniques to develop websites, web applications, and web tools that are highly usable by people with disabilities. “Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility” and “Involving Users in Evaluating Web Accessibility” are directly addressed to web developers and project managers without usability expertise (and suggest “getting assistance from accessibility, disability, and user-centered design specialists”).

These documents help others understand what most usability professionals already know: that involving users early in the design process results in better products for uers and more efficient project development.

Overlap with Older Users, Mobile Users, and Other User Groups
WAI’s recent work explores in detail the relationship between designing for people with disabilities and designing for other “non-disabled” user populations who benefit from accessibility, such as:

Text Resizing Example
An example of how accessibility overlaps with other issues and the different components of web accessibility is resizing text in websites.

For years, common browsers have provided settings for text sizes. However, it only worked if website developers coded relative text sizes (for example, % or em) instead of absolute sizes (e.g., pt), and didn’t put text in images. Also, most browsers offered only five text sizes. That meant that many users were not able to increase the text size sufficiently or at all for most websites.

Now, many browsers provide zoom functionality. With zoom, users can change the text size (no matter how website developers code it) and images within a significant range, often 10-1000 percent. (Still many users aren’t aware of this functionality or are stuck using browsers without it.)

Text resizing through zoom illustrates where accessibility can be provided through the browser. This is an example of the shared responsibility of web accessibility—what we call the “Essential Components of Web Accessibility.”

WAI covers these components with guidelines for “user agents” (such as browsers and media players) and for authoring tools (such as WYSIWYG editors, content management systems [CMS], blog software, and social networking sites).

Text resizing benefits others as well: older users often need to resize text, and when designing for mobile device users, the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP) says, “Do not use pixel measures and do not use absolute units…”

Comprehensive International Standards
These additional benefits are not always realized when designers use only limited standards. For example, current U.S. Section 508 web standards do not cover text resizing at all (and were published in 2000).

WAI’s accessibility standards are developed through the W3C process, with a goal of meeting the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.

As many national governments update their accessibility policies and standards (including the U.S. Section 508 and 255), adopting WCAG 2.0 and WAI’s other accessibility standards provides international harmony.

Supporting Awareness, Advocacy, Education
Accessibility standards are just part of a broad range of topics covered in WAI’s education and outreach materials, including presentations and handouts for anyone to use.

”Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization” presents benefits and costs of web accessibility covering social, technical, financial, and legal factors.

A new resources appendix provides statistics, case studies, and other articles.

Participating in WAI
WAI provides an international forum for collaboration among industry, disability organizations, accessibility researchers, government, and individuals interested in web accessibility.

Your contributions to improving usable accessibility of the web—through your own work or through WAI —are greatly appreciated. UX

Shawn Lawton Henry leads worldwide education and outreach promoting web accessibility for people with disabilities at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Shawn focuses her personal passion for accessibility on bringing together the needs of individuals and the goals of organizations in designing human-computer interfaces. Her most recent book, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design, offers an approach for developing products that are more usable for everyone.

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.

This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2, 2010.

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