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Additional benefits of accessible design

Designing online content for people with disabilities has additional benefits. Accessible design, which is also often referred to as 'universal design', provides an improved experience for all users. Websites that are easy to use - regardless of how they are accessed - and well organised are bound to attract a greater number and a wider variety of loyal visitors.

Aging population :

As the usability guru Jakob Nielsen points out: It's the one user category we're all likely to join one day.

Over the years a growing number of senior citizens has embraced the Internet. Currently this user group tends to be less familiar with recent technology, its jargon and conventions and tends to experience some of the same problems as people with disabilities. With age vision, motor control and memory can deteriorate. It can become more difficult to use a mouse or read small font sizes and a site's complex structure and navigation can easily become too intimidating and confusing. Colour perception also shifts with age to a preference for yellow and orange tones. Blue and green colours become more difficult to distinguish.

Consistency and simplicity in design and navigation, sensible colour schemes and clarity of content are therefore especially important. A website should also allow the user to increase the font size, not only to improve readability, but also 'clickability' - larger sized links are easier to click on.

Speakers of other languages :

Globalization, localization and internationalisation have been buzzwords for a couple of years now, ever since it became apparent how global the web is and how diverse it is becoming. This basically means that (a) your webpages can be accessed from all over the world and (b) English is not the only language on the web anymore.

For example, German is now the second most used language on the Google search engine. And in April 2002 Google, for the first time, received more queries in Spanish than in Japanese. [source]

Reading speed and comprehension are likely to be slower for speakers of other languages and also for people with low literacy levels. Therefore it is important to deliver content in a clear, simple and jargon-free language.

The latest specifications allow web designers to declare the language of a document and to announce language changes within a page. This also benefits users of screen readers. This technology is now sophisticated enough to switch to the according language where required.

Old technology, slow connections :

The definition of accessibility also refers to 'device independence'. This means that it should be possible to get to the information contained in a webpage regardless of the technology used to access it.

Backwards compatibility is an important aspect of accessibility. Website are often accessed on old computers, with slow connections or older software. Technology is expensive, especially assistive technology. It should not be assumed that only because a technology is available, it is widespread.

Many people actually prefer using low-tech, text-only browsers, simply because nowadays webpages have become too bloated and distracting, and to avoid the constant interruption of pop-up advertising. For these people using a low-tech browsers is a conscious choice.

Using the latest design and scripting techniques might cause problems for these users of older technology. For example, without JavaScript enabled or without the latest version of a multimedia viewer some of the content might not be accessible to them and slow-loading, graphics-heavy pages will test their patience.

This is why the WAI Accessibility Guidelines recommend providing alternatives to multimedia content, providing links to skip flash movies, and creating pages that 'degrade gracefully'[?] to older browsers, where some of the design, layout and presentation might be lost, but the information contained is still accessible.


Tip: You can test your own pages by using the Opera browser [Open link in new browser window.] (free download available), which lets you switch between 'author mode' (the page as the author wanted it) and 'user mode' (styles defined by the user) with just one click of the mouse.

Learn more in the chapter on User control.

Small devices / hand-held technology :

People access the Internet via a variety of devices, some of which have become smaller and smaller over the last few years. People access email, news, stock quotes and entertainment information from their tiny mobile phone screens or their hand-held PDAs.

Web content has to be presented to these devices in a stripped down format with large decorative images and presentational extras removed.


Resize your browser window to simulate a mobile phone.

The latest specifications for hypertext mark-up by the W3C emphasises the importance of device independence, which can be achieved by separating content from presentational styles. These styles are specified in a separate document (the style sheet or CSS), leaving only text and structural instructions, which can be displayed on any device without problems. [Refer to the example under Old technology.]

Business interests :

According to the W3C [Open link in new browser window.] , 10% to 20% of the population in most countries has disabilities. Excluding such a large percentage of the overall population from the opportunities and services the Internet can provide is not just an ethical and moral question, it is also a bad business decision and a legal liability.

During the few years of the rapid e-commerce boom and the following 'dotcom bust', lack of accessibility was often cited as one of the reasons for the failure of online commercial endevours, where flashy design had been favoured over usability.

Accessibility is an important issue for business and e-commerce sites because locking out a part of the Internet population means locking out potential customers, especially taking into consideration that the Internet has significantly increased the independence and buying power of people with disabilities.

In 2000, the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) tested the websites of 17 high street stores and banks in order to establish the accessibility of their sites to blind and partially sighted people. The disappointing results were published in a report titled 'Get the message online: Making Internet shopping accessible'. More information and the executive summary can be found at the RNIB website [Open link in new browser window.] .

Search engines :

Clear content, alternative text for images and audio files and the truthful use of metatags improve indexing by search engines, which means that the ranking of your website in search results will be more relevant to the user's queries. This also improves the performance of internal site search engines, making it easier for visitors to your site to find exactly what they are looking for.

Site maintenance :

The separation of content from presentation, as recommended in the latest W3C specifications for HTML and CSS, makes site maintenance a more efficient and less time-consuming process. Style sheets can be applied to several pages or the whole site. They contain instructions on how certain structural element should be displayed.

For example : If we wanted to change the background colour across the website or change the font type of headers and subheaders, we would only have to change one instruction in the style sheet rather than having to change every single page of the site.

Social responsibility :

It could be argued that the issue of ethics and social responsibility is a diverse and personal one, but in the case of public services such as government information, education, libraries, etc. it quickly becomes a measure of the worth of those in decision making roles.

Imagine polling stations at elections that are not wheelchair accessible, preventing many people from exercising their right to take part in the democratic process. In our post-politically correct era this is unimaginable and would cause an uproar that could seriously damage the reputation and credibility of our elected representatives.

Unfortunately we cannot rely on individual responsibility. The lack of provisions for the disabled is often not due to malice but lack of awareness. This is especially the case in the context of web development, where awareness of the barriers encountered by the disabled and of the ways of removing these barriers is still not widespread.

This is why, around the world, legislation is coming into effect to ensure that online government information and services comply with certain standards and are accessible to people with disabilities. For businesses and everyone else who puts content online it is still largely a matter of personal ethics.

Learn more :

Relevant links can be found in the Resource section.

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