Why Web Accessibility is More Than a Legal Obligation

This is a crosspost of http://dotgov.com. Author: Glenda Watson Hyatt

Utter the phrase “web accessibility” to a group of web designers and watch eyes immediately glaze over. Thoughts rapidly surface of how alt attributes, relative font sizes, audio transcripts and other technical requirements impede their creativity and add to their workload. However, the thoughts that are slow to surface, if at all, are how web accessibility, these technical requirements, impacts people.

When websites are designed with accessibility in mind, the 54 million Americans with disabilities can use and interact with the websites independently.

To these Americans, web accessibility means:

  • A man with a sight impairment can independently purchase a dog license for his guide dog.
  • A woman confined to bed can participate in local government discussions and forums.
  • A young voter with a hearing impairment can access the information he needs to make an informed decision in the voting booth.
  • An injured veteran can check the program and benefit options available to aid him upon his return home.

Web accessibility is more than a checklist of technical requirements; more than a legal obligation. Paul Bohman in his previous position of Director of Training Products and Services at WebAIM, pointed out that web accessibility is not an exact science. It isn’t simply an application of rules, although the rules definitely help in creating accessible web sites. It is more accurate to see web accessibility as “involved in the human aspect; connected with usability and human interface design.” (quoted from Web Accessibility for Community College webcast) Both the technical requirements and the human factor must be considered when creating truly accessible sites.

In her book Access by Design: A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers, Sarah Horton reminds us why we build websites:

We build Web sites for many reasons, but one reason trumps all others: We build Web sites so people can use them. They are to be looked at, watched, listened to, skimmed, read, printed, clicked, input into, and operated by different people using different access devices. If the result of design is that someone cannot load a page or activate a link or read a paragraph or interpret an image, then design is no longer a means to an end–design is an impediment.

With 2009 drawing to a close, design does not need to be an impediment any longer. Countless tools, books, courses and consultants are available to guide designers on creating accessible websites, giving web designers and companies no excuse, except for being unprofessional, for creating websites not accessible to citizens with disabilities.

For a society that values independence and freedom, web accessibility is more than Section 508. Creating accessible websites enables and empowers those individuals who otherwise would be dependent on others for assistance with yet another task. Accessible websites at the local, state and federal levels enable American citizens with a variety of disabilities to access, interact, and participate in e-government.

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Amy Bell

Very well put. Thank you for crossposting this for govloopers to read. I expect the design group will be interested in this, so I’ll direct them here.

Steve Guengerich

I’d add another resources too: http://www.knowbility.org and their various programs:
-the accessibility internet rally (AIR)
-and AT-STAR, for student centered technology results in public schools

Thanks for the article Michael!

Glenda Watson Hyatt

Steve, thanks for adding knowbility.org to the list. They do great work!

Jean-Paul, yes, that was a great article on CNET! In this day, there is no reason every website shouldn’t be accessible.

Thanks Amy, much appreciated.

Nena Moss

“Creating accessible websites enables and empowers those individuals who otherwise would be dependent on others for assistance with yet another task.” So true. We can ‘unlock doors’ with accessibility. As Boomers age, many will see the need more clearly. Thank you for this post.