Many developers find it hard knowing where to start when it comes to learning how to build accessible web applications and sites. This blog post is the first in a series that will address these concerns by providing developers with the necessary background for understanding the reasons, design concerns, regulations and technologies associated with building accessible web applications and web sites.

I am also presenting an educational session called “Making PeopleSoft Accessible” at the Alliance 16 conference March 6-9 in Seattle.

What is Accessibility About?

Accessibility challenges us as organizations, engineers, developers, and designers to build solutions that are functionally usable and useful for all people regardless of their physical and or mental capacities. Since the Internet and web technologies are the dominant forms of information access and exchange in our modern economies, building accessible web applications and sites is of critical importance because it could be the difference between someone being able to learn and educate themselves, or being able to get a job and earn a good living.

Accessibility matters because people matter and we should embrace a culture of inclusivity to maximize the potential for all people to contribute to our society and live fulfilling lives.

Overcoming barriers people face when they try to use websites and web applications

Designing for Physical Disabilities

People with vision loss, hearing loss, colour blindness, light blindness, lack of motor control, Down syndrome, and brain injury have difficulty interacting with web applications for many different reasons. It’s important to design with many of the common assistive technologies in mind so that you can create a way for all people with disabilities to see, understand and interact with our web applications.

Desiging for Learning Disabilities

Blind man reading brailleDyslexia, ADHD, OCD, autism, anxiety, bipolar disorder can also impact how people use websites and applications. The effects are more subtle and often undiagnosed, but typography, color palette, language and layout can make it difficult for people with Learning Disabilities to read and understand your web applications.

What are other advantages of improving accessibility?

  • More effective websites and applications – Making an application accessible has the added benefit of making it more usable by more people. By taking the time to follow accessibility best practices, the content will be better organized, language will be clearer, and navigation will be made more intuitive to everybody
  • Content is easier to maintain and understand – When you design with accessibility in mind, you will inevitably improve the structure and semantic meaning of the HTML markup that’s in the page. This means that people who use screen reading software will be able to read the page easier and understand how to move through the document in a logical and meaningful way.
  • Better search engine optimization (SEO) – By ensuring that all visual content has text alternatives, you gain the added benefit of better search engine optimization. When people search the internet using key words, the additional text means that your site will be more likely to return in the search results.
  • Better usability and more intuitive navigation structure – Navigation is often greatly improved when you develop with accessibility in mind. The information architecture, which includes both the language and structure of information in a web page, is often more thought out and the layout of navigation links is made clearer and more usable using a keyboard, screen reading software and mobile devices.

Legal Requirements for Accessibility

Section 508 (of the US Rehabilitation Act) Compliance

In 1998, Congress introduced an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act requiring Federal agencies to make all electronic and Information Technology accessible to people with disabilities. It defines a set of standards that all agencies must follow to provide the same access to information for people with disabilities that is available to all others.

Section 508 Standards

The Section 508 standards provide a set of guidelines that are used to evaluate if a web site or application meets the minimum requirements for accessibility.

The standards as they apply to web sites and applications can be summarized as follows:

  • The interface must be fully operable and usable by people using only a keyboard
  • All content must be readable and any purely visual indicators must have text alternatives
  • Any audio or video content should have subtitles or other alternative methods of conveying the information
  • All content must be built using web standards to ensure interoperability with screen reading software.
  • All product documentation must be provided to end-users in a format that they can use at no additional cost

Enforcement of Section 508

The Section 508 standards are incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and is subject to the same compliance and enforcement mechanisms as other parts of the FAR.

This means that any individual with a disability can file a complaint against a Federal department or agency that has not complied with the accessible technology standards. Furthermore, individuals may also file a civil action against an agency if they feel that the lack of compliance is discriminatory.

Read more here:

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

Alongside the legal requirements outlined in Secion 508, the World Wide Consortium (W3C) is also a huge proponent of accessibility.

W3C is an international consortium of web organizations and companies and they formed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to focus on the problem of web accessibility. They continue to work together to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The W3C created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to act as a technical standard with criteria to help evaluate accessibility compliance. They defined 3 levels of accessibility: Level A, Level AA, & Level AAA. The minimum level that organizations are expected meet is Level A.

WCAG Principles

Perceivable: Present information in ways all users can perceive

Operable: All users must be able to operate the interface

Understandable: Make content readable

Robust: Content must be interpretable by current and future assistive technologies

Stay tuned for more information on how to build accessible applications and websites.

Check back soon for the next post in this series, which will provide guidelines for building accessible web applications and sites. The article will also explaining key Assistive Technologies and how to build applications and websites that are fully accessible both against Section 508 and WCAG 2.0.

Additional Accessibility Resources for Web Application Designers

WCAG 2.0

Web Accessibility Initiative

Section 508 Standards

Keyboard accessibility

Enabling Access



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