What is Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility can sometimes be a controversial topic, but a fiery dialogue is a healthy sign of just how much people really care. While opinions may vary on specific issues, one thing is clear: Equal access to information is paramount in the digital age.

A Traditional Definition

If you’re new to web design and development, accessibility has traditionally been the practice of enabling users of all abilities and disabilities to consume content. When an individual has difficulty with vision, hearing, motor skills, cognition, or some combination of these, they tend to require special hardware or software. For example, a user with full blindness will typically use a program that is categorized as a screen reader, which uses text-to-speech technology to deliver an aural version of what’s present on the screen. This is actually fairly profound. Prior to this technology, having a vision impairment meant it was difficult, expensive, or impossible, to do something like read the daily news. Whoa.

A non-specific set of English text next to some Braille cells.
(Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rolanddme/4944962234/)

Right now, I’m working on new Treehouse badges that cover accessibility in detail. When I started writing the introductory videos, I was faced with a very fundamental question. What is web accessibility, exactly? In other words, what falls into the scope of accessibility and what does not? Before I present my own opinion, let’s take a look at what a few other web resources have to say.

From the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI):

Web accessibility 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.

From the Wikipedia article on Web Accessibility:

Web accessibility refers to the inclusive practice of making websites usable by people of all abilities and disabilities. When sites are correctly designed, developed and edited, all users can have equal access to information and functionality.

Now, I mostly agree with these definitions. However, as much as I enjoy idealistic language, it should always be supported by a harsh dose of pragmatism. I use clean HTML because it makes websites that work. I’m vegetarian because I like animals. My favorite alcoholic drinks consist of just two ingredients in equal parts, because they’re easy to remember. These definitions of accessibility are fantastic, but I think it’s time we broaden our collective understanding to include a few other real-world practices that we, the web community, are already engaged in.

I think web accessibility can be more simply described as the practice of making content available to people and machines. Maybe there’s a few words that could be added or removed, but that’s where my general sentiments currently sit. Or, maybe we even need a new term to describe this, like “Content Availability” or something similarly fancy.

New Shiny Things

Many years ago there was a place that was (and still is) called the mobile web. Before decent web browsers were built into phones, this bizarro world was like a parallel universe that existed alongside the regular web. Developers would make a normal version of their sites for desktop or laptop computers, and then, they would make a completely separate site for mobile browsers. In some instances, building a separate site is still the right choice to make, but responsive web design is a popular solution that allows a single code base to work across any screen resolution.

There’s no denying the recent explosion in web browsing devices; Mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, and so many more. However, there’s a lot of things that haven’t been invented yet. By the time this decade is done, there are going to be web browsers built into things that don’t even make sense right now. Remember all the silly technology promises from the early 2000′s? I’ll make one up right now: A blender that can talk to you and tell you what smoothies you can make based on the available ingredients that your refrigerator is reporting.

Buttons on a blender that say things like puree, crumb, and chop.
(Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cookbookman/6175751165/)

It seems far fetched, but up until recently, so did real-time video calling or a talking digital assistant like Siri. The future is coming fast, but we can be ready by making standards-based sites that work for all people and devices. The blender I described would probably gather smoothie recipes via a web API, but if it’s smart enough, it might even be able to do it in a fashion that’s somewhere between a search engine and a screen reader.

Does all this new-age-web-device stuff fall under the umbrella of accessibility? If all we’re trying to do is make our content available, then yes, I think so.

"Open the pod bay doors, HAL."

In my definition, I mentioned machines. We just covered hardware machines, but what about software machines? Right now, the most prominent web-crawling software machine is, of course, search engines. Special software, called spiders, crawl the web looking for new content. Many designers and developers even engage in a practice called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to try and make their sites more appealing to these search spiders so that their sites appear higher up in search results.

I personally have a hard time viewing SEO as a separate step beyond coding up a standards-based website using best practices. My feelings on the traditional definition of accessibility are similar; it’s not really a separate step that comes later. Rather, it’s a part of how you structure content and how you test its compatibility, as you normally should. These are all just different sides of the same coin.

Another facet of software accessibility might include easy-to-use and publicly available APIs. Often I’ve worked on web projects that need to access information from another web app that doesn’t make its data readily available. Sometimes that means the feature has to be scrapped, or if you’re feeling daring, you might rely on a magical technique known as web scraping. Either way, it’s not great. I believe that public APIs fall under this broad definition of accessibility.

The Great Dialogue

Defining what is and is not this thing we call accessibility might seem a bit trivial, but hammering out a solid vernacular is key to building a community that knows how to work through its issues. I don’t have all the answers, so I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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