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The Benefits of Accessibility

Continuing along the path to web enlightenment, I came across an article that outright made stop by browsing and read it from start to finish.  The fascinating article was Understanding Web Accessibility, written by Shawn Lawton Henry.  In order for me to appreciate the content of the article more, I decided to learn a bit about Henry and to see what the author’s qualifications were.  Maybe then I could come to some sort of realization on to what exactly influenced the author and made Henry want to write such an immaculately detailed piece of information. 

It turns out that Henry leads worldwide education and outreach promoting web accessibility for people with disabilities at the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Shawn focuses her personal passion for accessibility on bringing together the needs of individuals and the goals of organizations in designing human-computer interfaces.  I found it very interesting, that her TAdER Project provides research and outreach to better understand users’ needs to customize text for readability — specifically, people with low vision, dyslexia, and related conditions that impact reading, including older people.  She has even written a book, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design, which is available free online, which offers an approach for developing products that are more usable for everyone.

Alright, enough about Henry, let’s move on to the article itself; I am sure you anticipation much be reaching its boiling point by now!  Right off the bat, the thing that made this article so informative is probably the most obvious- the fact that it was basically an introduction to understanding web accessibility (much like the title suggested).

As Henry puts it, accessibility is, well, what makes the information on the web accessible to all sorts of different people, primarily people with disabilities.  With accessible websites, people with disabilities can do ordinary things: children can learn, teenagers can flirt, adults can make a living, seniors can read about their grandchildren, and so on.

According to Henry, With the Web, people with disabilities can do more things themselves, without having to rely on others.  People who are blind can read the newspaper (through screen readers that read aloud text from the computer), and so can people with cognitive disabilities who have trouble processing written information.  Individuals who are deaf can get up-to-the-minute news that was previously available only to those who could hear radio or TV, and so can those who are blind and deaf (through dynamic Braille displays).  People with quadriplegia who cannot move their arms or legs can shop online to get groceries, gadgets, and gifts delivered.   Not only that, but people who cannot speak are able to participate in online discussions, such as through blog comments.

There are even websites, such as the site for the National Federation of the Blind, that are dedicated to developing a rigorous procedure by which web sites and applications that have made special efforts to be accessible to the blind can be identified and recognized.

The possibilities are endless and we now live in a day and age where disabilities no longer define us, nor do they run our lives.  Due to the accessibility the web offers, we have the potential to move past the restrictions our disabilities once put on us, break out of our sheltered shell, and enjoy all that life itself has to offer.

I know I am probably making accessibility out to be more than it really is, but the mere fact that it provides opportunities to participate in society in ways otherwise not available, blows my mind.  Yea, our society may have slipped in the past decade and lost many of its once prestigious morals and principals thanks to Obama’s leadership, but the fact that these individuals have the opportunity to participate is something worth celebrating.

However, celebrating will have to be put on hold until the rest of the web gets in the same boat.  What do I mean?  Well, unfortunately this possibility is not a reality seen throughout the web.  The problem is that most websites have accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible for many people with disabilities to use them. Adding insult to injury, most web software tools are not sufficiently accessible to people with disabilities, making it difficult or impossible for them to contribute to the web.  This is a very big deal as many millions of people have disabilities that affect their use of the Web.

The article goes on to break down the definition of accessibility, defining it as a means for people with disabilities to be able to use the Web; more specifically, web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web.  The article continues to break it down further by listing off various benefits that exist to those with varying disabilities.  Examples from the article are as follows:

  • Some people cannot use their arms or hands to type or move a mouse. Carl had polio and cannot move his arms. He uses a mouth      stick, which is just a wooden dowel with an eraser on the end. Sarah has cerebral palsy and has limited control of her arms and mouth; she uses a headstick.
  • Some people with tremors and older people with diminishing fine motor control can use a keyboard, but not a mouse.  Richard has multiple sclerosis and can move his arms but not with enough precision to control a mouse.
  • Some people cannot see at all and use a screen reader that reads aloud the information in the web page. Neal was born blind.      John started losing his sight from retinitis pigmentosa when he was a young adult. Screen readers are also used by people like Tracy, who can see just fine but have trouble processing written language.
  • Some people have blurry vision and cannot read text unless it is very large. Shawn has a neurological condition that makes it      hard to focus on small text, so she increases the size of text and images in her browser. Richard also has blurry vision. It is common for people to have multiple disabilities.

Although reading about the improved functionality of websites that utilize web accessibility was very informal, it was the various examples Henry gave to provide depth to the topic.  In regards to the creation of my own web site, it was interesting to read that alternative text equivalents, called alt text, are a clear example of web accessibility.  Web pages often include images, but some people cannot see images.  People who cannot see images can get the information contained in the images when web developers include alternative text equivalents for images. An alternative text equivalent provides the same functional information in text as the image provides visually. The markup for image alt text looks like:

                                    <img src="thunder.gif" alt="storms" />


Henry continued with article by describing approaches to web accessibility, such as how to understand the issues and how to involve people with disabilities in your project, as well as debunking harmful myths about web accessibility, such as accessibility making site dull and that it is expensive.  She also went on to give additional benefits from a business perspective.

All in all, this was a great article to read and it really opened my eyes.  I implore your to read the article yourself; I guarantee you will learn just as much as I did!


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