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Chapter 1. Introduction > What Is Web Accessibility?

What Is Web Accessibility?

Maximum Accessibility is a book about how to make the World Wide Web accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities, and why it’s important to do that. Let’s begin with an operational definition of accessibility. Web sites are accessible when individuals with disabilities can access and use them as effectively as people who don’t have disabilities.

That’s the definition used in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by Congress in 1998. [1] This law, usually referred to simply as Section 508, mandates that, as of June 21, 2001, all electronic and information technology used, procured, developed, or maintained by agencies and departments of the U.S. government must be accessible to people with disabilities. This includes approximately 120,000 federal employees who have disabilities. That’s a lot of people, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the more than 54 million Americans with disabilities who might one day want or need access to those technologies and the information they produce. Included among the 54 million Americans with disabilities are nearly 6 million children—children who can learn and grow to make significant contributions to the vitality of our society [Bureau of the Census 1997].

[1] See http://www.section508.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Content&ID=14 , accessed May 8, 2002.

Accessibility Guidelines and Standards

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

When we talk about accessibility guidelines and standards, we’re referring primarily to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, or WCAG (pronounced WuhKAG), and to the federal government’s Section 508 Internet and Intranet Accessibility Standards.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published WCAG 1.0 as a formal Recommendation on May 5, 1999, just over two years after launching the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in April 1997. WCAG 1.0 is one element in a comprehensive accessibility strategy; other WAI recommendations address the authoring tools used to create Web content and the user agents that display that material. In fact, the WAI’s first product was a major revision of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) itself (the W3C is responsible for HTML and related specifications). Replacing HTML 3.2 in December 1997, HTML 4.0 introduced many important changes designed specifically to enhance accessibility for people with disabilities. With the publication of WCAG 1.0 five months later, the WAI had for the first time produced a set of accessibility guidelines for the Web that represented a broad, international consensus among industry representatives, academic researchers, and members of the disability community. This impressive accomplishment was a result of the W3C’s rigorous consensus-building process, which we’ll describe in Chapter 3.

Section 508

As we’ll also explain in more detail in Chapter 3, WCAG 1.0 has become the basis for accessibility standards adopted by the international community. In the United States, a 1998 law called the Workforce Investment Act, which included a major overhaul of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (originally passed in 1973), charged the U.S. Access Board with the task of producing accessibility standards for all electronic and information technologies used, produced, purchased, or maintained by the federal government. WCAG 1.0 provided a solid foundation for the work of the panels set up by the Access Board: the Section 508 Internet and Intranet Accessibility Standards that went into effect on June 21, 2001, exactly six months after being published by the Access Board, are very close to WCAG 1.0’s Priority 1 checkpoints.

In our view, WCAG 1.0 is both broader and deeper than the Section 508 standards for Web accessibility. WCAG 1.0 includes a total of 65 checkpoints. These are arranged under 14 separate guidelines and then further organized into 3 priority levels. By contrast, Section 508 includes 16 standards for Web accessibility; there are no separate checkpoints, and there is just one priority level: required. That is, Section 508 compliance requires that all the standards that apply to a given Web resource must be met.

We’ll be discussing WCAG 1.0 and Section 508 in detail throughout this book. The complete text of WCAG 1.0 is available from the WAI at http://www.w3.org/tr/wcag10/ . Also available on this site are checkpoints and an extensive techniques document. The WAI Web site at http://www.w3.org/wai also offers links to training materials and a great deal of other information related to Web accessibility. Information about Section 508, including the Internet and Intranet Accessibility Standards and a wealth of other information about Section 508 and how it applies, is available at http://www.section508.gov.

Beyond Compliance

The WCAG Working Group produced a checklist to accompany WCAG 1.0 when it was published in May 1999. A number of other organizations have produced comparable checklists for the Section 508 standards as well. These checklists are extremely convenient, but it would be a serious mistake to conclude that accessibility is just a matter of checking off items on a list. It’s much more than that—and a lot more interesting, too. Accessibility goes beyond compliance with the requirements of Section 508 or WCAG 1.0. It’s possible to produce Web resources that conform to WCAG 1.0’s Priority 1 checkpoints and comply with Section 508’s standards for Web accessibility but still don’t make sense to people with disabilities—or anyone else, for that matter. Which raises a question: If accessibility isn’t compliance with the guidelines and standards, what is it?

Answers to this question can have different starting points, depending on whether you’re talking about the way individuals with disabilities use the Web or about the way designers and developers set up Web sites. We’ll begin with the user’s perspective because that’s where it all comes to a head.

Accessibility Is an Aspect of the User Experience

An important thing to notice about the definition of accessibility with which we began is that it’s user-centered, not document-centered. In other words, it defines accessibility as an aspect or quality of the individual user’s experience of the Web site, not a property of the document itself. This has important implications for Web designers and developers: it means that the job is to produce the experience of accessibility. That makes it important to have a better understanding of how people with disabilities experience the Web now. Then we’ll be in a better position to think of ways to use accessibility guidelines and standards as resources for improving the Web experience, not just a bunch of rules we have to follow.

An analogy with going to see a play or a movie might be helpful here. The experience of going to the theater isn’t just about the script (the text of the play). It’s not just about the stage set, either, nor about the actors, the director, the producer, the stagehands. The play lives in the way audience members experience the interplay of all these things and more (the theater building, the crowd in the lobby, the memories of previous experiences).

Accessibility Is Environmental

In other words, experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Web experience isn’t just about the particular site you happen to be visiting at the moment. The Web experience, too, lives in the interplay of many elements. There’s the Web site, the browser (such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator), the computer hardware, the operating system, and more—including, of course, you: your memories and expectations, the mood you’re in, the room where you’re working, what’s going on around you, the other sites you’ve been to before you reached the one you’re looking at now, your body.

For people with disabilities, assistive technologies such as screen readers, talking browsers, refreshable Braille displays, voice recognition, and other alternative input devices are often a key part of the mix. And so is frustration and the memory of having been frustrated before, as site after site turned out to be inaccessible and unusable, in whole or in part.

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