On Web Accessibility: Tom Wlodkowski (AOL)

WM: Why does it matter if websites are accessible?

TW: An accessible web site translates to a more usable interface for all users, so that's probably the most compelling argument. There are certain HTML tags like the image alt attribute or a header tag that are essential to enable people who are blind to access web pages with screen reader software. Those same tags if implemented correctly optimize a web page for spidering by search engines. Search ranking is important to achieving success on the web. Search crawlers deal better with text not graphics.
WM: What is the business case for accessibility?

TW: 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 discressionary spending power.
    - 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.

WM: In one sentence, what is accessibility?

TW: The ability of a web site to account for multiple ways of accessing content (closed captions for video, text equivalent for images, keyboard support, etc.).

WM: Can you talk about a case study or tell me a story that helps me understand what it means for your site to be accessible or inaccessible?

TW: AOL's "WebSuite Lite" product is a good story. This site offers an accessible web mail and calendar interface. The interface includes the essential techniques known to make web navigation with screen reader software more efficient. It also offers a comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts that mirror those found in popular e-mail client applications. The keyboard shortcuts are surfaced through a menu at the top of the page.
WM: What is keeping accessibility from being a mainstream element in website design?

TW: The two major factors in my view are 1) lack of awareness on the part of web developers; 2) the transition from use of static web pages to deployment of dynamic, rich internet applications to deliver content. This transition represents a major paradigm shift for how assistive technologies like screen readers provide access to web content. Instead of a new page loading when a user actions a link, techniques like Ajax, JavaScript and  other solutions allow developers to dynamically refresh the same page when a user invokes a link or some other control type. Fortunately there are efforts underway that should, over time, close the gap in accessibility of Web 2.0 interfaces. These include:

  • ARIA- The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative Protocols and Formats Working Group is developing the Accessible rich Internet Application Guidelines (ARIA).
  • DHTML Style Guide- A collaborative effort led by AOL effort to define best practices for keyboard support for widgets that are used in internet applications. 

WM: What are some helpful resources to get started on the path to accessibility?

TW: If accessibility is incorporated from the beginning of a project, the effort will yield the best results without adding considerable time and cost to the project. Here are a few helpful resources:


  • W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), home to a broad range of accessibility guidelines. Developers should familiarize themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (version 2 to be released shortly), and ARIA guidelines for rich internet applications. WAI also has guidelines for accessible user agents (media players, web browsers, etc.), authoring tool guidelines and other helpful resources.
  • AXS JavaScript Library- Developed at AOL, AXS allows developers to more easily add keyboard support to web applications and addresses other barriers associated with dynamic web applications (focus tracking when content is refreshed is one example).