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The Great (Web) Accessibility Divide

Posted on 7.31.2008

Website accessibility is becoming a hot topic on the Web. As rich media becomes a greater part of the online experience, many people with disabilities are finding themselves left behind. Website Magazine contributor Dante Monteverde posed some very important questions to three leading accessibility experts. Some of their answers are printed below. For more important questions and answers, and resources for building greater accessibility please visit WebsiteMagazine.com and search “accessibility.” Answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Describe the human element behind website accessibility.
Anne Taylor, National Federation of the Blind

The user experience of the blind on an inaccessible website can easily be compared to sighted individuals in a completely disorganized price club store with thousands of unlabeled products packages, mismatched labeled shelves or unlabeled isles – total confusion. No business wants to deliver such a horrible shopping experience to their customers. Regrettably, this is what blind individuals are encountering on the inaccessible websites.

Blind individuals need accessible websites in order to benefit from products and services offered on the Internet. To surf the web, the blind must have an internet-ready computer and screen access software that will render Web content into speech. While the blind navigate through the Web pages, we listen for important HTML navigation controls such as links, edit boxes or combo boxes. If these controls are labeled properly, then we will have no problem accessing the sites. However, if websites contain improperly labeled HTML controls we just simply cannot use the sites.

In response to repeated reports from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)'s membership about the issues listed above, the NFB launched our Nonvisual Accessibility Certification – the only certification that incorporates automated and human usability testing to reward and showcase sites that are friendly to blind consumers. Once a site becomes accessible, we publicize that to our membership and reward that company with more business.


Why does it matter if websites are accessible?
Sharon Rush, Knowbility

People with disabilities want the same things as everyone – equal opportunities to learn, work and live independently and to communicate with family, friends, government and business entities. Technology makes all of this more possible than ever before, and accessibility is the key. People with disabilities are often less able to travel around a region and so online learning, shopping, registering for government services and other daily tasks are made much more feasible through the Internet. If sites are not accessible, however, the experience becomes frustrating and can be completely impossible. As a society, we can not afford to leave out this array of human talent.

We often point to accommodations out there in the built environment – wheelchair ramps, sloping curbcuts at street intersections, TV captioning, automatic door opening mechanisms, large toilet stalls for wheelchair access, wider doors, etc. Think for a moment about how those are used in the real world for even the non-disabled – travelers pulling luggage, parents of kids in strollers, people in airports and restaurants who can't hear the TV, etc. So it is with technology – online applications are made more user-friendly for everyone when universal design techniques are implemented. People take in information in different ways and the more options that are provided, the more effective your communication will be with everyone.


What is the business case for accessibility?
Tom Wlodkowski, Director of Accessibility, AOL LLC

While hard numbers are hard to quantify, here are some compelling statistics that drive the accessibility discussion from the business perspective:

  • 1/3 of U.S. households have at least one member with a disability.
  • The disability community represents $220 billion in discretionary spending power. *Editor’s note: Forbes Magazine estimates the buying power of this market at more than one trillion dollars per year.
  • The aging baby boomer generation: Boomers may not always self-identify as having a disability, but a site that offers essential accessibility features such as high contrast will be easier to use for the aging community as vision begins to deteriorate.

AOL's accessible Web mail interface generates a significant number of page views. The numbers tell me that more people than individuals with disabilities have found our accessible interface best meets their needs.

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