What is it?

Web accessibility, according to the W3C:

means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging.

For organisations and website owners, being accessible means that your site or application can be used by a range of people with different types and severities of disability. For the web, the most relevant types of disabilities include visual impairments (e.g. blindness, colour blindness, nearsightedness), cognitive impairments (e.g. dementia), motor impairments (particularly those affecting the hands and arms), learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia), and hearing impairments.

An accessible site should also work well with assistive technology such as screen readers, dictation software, magnification software, braille terminals and alternative input devices. An accessibile site may conform to accessibility standards such as W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). However an accessible site is not necessarily WCAG-compliant, and a WCAG-compliant site is not necessarily accessible.

Accessibility can also mean ensuring that content and online services are available regardless of users’ technology or network quality. While this can be hard to achieve for complex sites, it makes good sense to build sites so they enable access for as many people as possible. It is not good to exclude users who do not have the most modern browsers, or who have older computers, or are on inconsistent networks.

Why is it important?

Disability can take many forms, and affect people in many different ways. With more and more information and services moving online, and an estimated 20% of the UK population having a disability, is is inevitable that the accessibility of most Web sites will increasingly matter to users.

While it may be easy to dismiss Web accessibility as not important, or even worse dismiss people with disabilities as not important, it is increasingly obvious to many that ensuring all people have the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of life is morally right and societally beneficial. This is recognised by the UK government who have implemented the UK Equality Act 2010 which places a duty on organisations to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people.

What’s happening with it?

The EU is currently in the process of formulating a robust and wide-ranging EU Accessibility Act (EAA) which covers accessibility of a wide range of hardware devices, as well as e-commerce Web sites and other digital products. This is in addition to the Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive which requires the accessibility of public sector Web sites and apps across Europe. The UK has been deeply involved in the development of the EAA, no doubt partly thanks to the emphasis placed on accessibility by the Government Digital Service which has done exemplary work in this area.

Likewise, many commercial organisations now realise that accessibility is something to be considered a high priority. They are working with experts, referencing the masses of excellent information online, and some are recruiting people with disabilities to help test Web sites. All this is commendable, however there are still too many organisations – and individual people working on the web – for whom accessibility is not seen as important; possibly due more to ignorance than malice.

The Web Matters position

Web Matters firmly agrees with Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium and inventor of the Web, when he says:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.

We applaud legislative efforts which stress that organisations must make their Web sites accessible. However this by itself is not enough, and Web Matters is committed to educating its members about the importance of accessibility – not just because it’s a legal requirement to do so, but because it is morally the right thing to do.

Further reading

Heather Burns, one of the Web Matters founders, was interviewed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology about the EAA.

A good introduction to the types of disability which must be catered for on the web

The World Wide Web Consortium’s section on accessibility

UK government advice about making website accessible