Wheelchair SurferSection 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires federal agencies to provide people with disabilities equal access to programs, services and activities through their websites. In 2005, Virginia implemented the Virginia Information Technology Accessibility Standard, which provides all state executive branch agencies and institutions of higher learning with minimum accessibility requirements for procurement, development and maintenance of IT systems. The standard also requires that all state employees and members of the public with disabilities have access to and use of information and data on the same par as those who do not have disabilities.

For now, these laws and standards apply only to Federal and State agencies. However, more recent events, such as the class action lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corporation in 2006, suggest that website accessibility requirements could soon reach a broader constituency. If that were the case, would your website hold up to these standards? Doesn’t it make sense to make your website accessible to a broader audience even without the compulsion of law? Making your website more accessible isn’t as difficult as you might think.

What Is Website Accessibility?

Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. This encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including:

Cognitive & neurological disabilities

These types of disabilities involve disorders of any part of the nervous system and can impact how well people hear, move, see, speak and understand information.

People with these types of disabilities require:

  • Clearly structured content that facilitates overview and orientation.
  • Consistent labeling of forms, buttons, and other content parts.
  • Different ways of navigating websites, such as through a hierarchical menu or search option.
  • Options to suppress blinking, flickering, flashing or otherwise distracting content.
  • Simpler text that is supplemented by images, graphs and other illustrations.

In order to access the Web, they require:

  • Text-to-speech software to hear the information while reading it visually (typically screen readers such as JAWS or Window Eyes).
  • Captions to read the information while hearing it.
  • Tools that resize text and spacing.
  • Tools that customize colors to assist reading.
  • Grammar and spelling tools to assist writing.

Physical disabilities

Physical disabilities include weakness, limitations of muscular control (such as involuntary movements, lack of coordination or paralysis), limitations of sensation, joint problems, pain that impedes movement or missing limbs.

People with these types of disabilities require:

  • Ergonomic or specially designed keyboard or mouse.
  • Head pointer, mouth stick, and other aids to help typing.
  • On-screen keyboard with trackball, joystick, and switches to operate it.
  • Voice recognition, eye tracking and other approaches for hands-free interaction.

In order to access the Web, they require:

  • Large clickable areas.
  • Error correction options for forms.
  • Visible indicators of the current focus.
  • Mechanisms to skip over blocks such as page headers or navigation bars.

Visual disabilities

Visual disabilities range from mild or moderate vision impairments in one or both eyes to blindness. They can include color blindness or increased sensitivity towards excessive brightness in colors.

People with these types of disabilities require:

  • Tools for enlarging or reducing text size and images.
  • Custom settings for fonts, colors and spacing.
  • Text-to-speech synthesis of the content (typically screen readers such as JAWS or Window Eyes).
  • Audio descriptions of video in multimedia.
  • Reading text using refreshable braille.

In my next post I’ll provide some tips for improving your website’s accessibility.