Designing Websites for Universal Usability
"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect."
- Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
Browser (Web Browser) - software used for delivering and viewing web content. If you are reading this page online, you are using a Web browser.
HTML - HyperText Markup Language - the most common computer language used to create web pages. It is possible (though not advisable) to create Web pages using HTML alone.
CSS - Cascading Style Sheet - the code that controls the design of a Web site: page size, color, background, text size and type, virtually all elements of the "look" of a site are controlled by CSS, and how CSS is read by your web browser.
Screen Reader - software that reads the text on your computer screen aloud.
W3C - the World Wide Web Consortium, a membership organization that sets and updates standards for online publications. While they have no direct legal authority, they are generally accepted as the "final word" on Web standards and best practices.
ADA - the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) is both a US Federal Law that defines and protects the rights of the disabled in the US, and a branch of the US Department of Justice which interprets and enforces the law.
Section 508 - is a 1998 amendment to the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Most accessibility oriented designers consider the requirements of Section 508 the minimum standards that should be met online.
WAI - the Web Accessibility Initiative is one of four domains of the World Wide Web Consortium. WAI pursues accessibility of the web. They are Accessibility Activist.
WCAG - the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines developed and codified by W3C's developed by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and are generally considered the ideal standards for Web accessibility. The current version is WCAG 2.0. It is organized into four principles and three levels of conformance.
All media is created for communication. Information design must take users' needs into account, or fail to communicate with many. The purpose of this site is to present the reasons for universal design, and suggest methods for reaching the widest possible audience.
The complexity of an accessible Web page can seem overwhelming to many designers. They think that robust elements must be left out, and aesthetics sacrificed. In fact, this isn't so. Good design and the code that displays it takes accessibility and usability into account without sacrificing appeal to or the experience of the average user.
Designers working under time (and therefore financial) contrasts fear that addressing accessibility will add to the cost of development. This may be true in the short-run, but long-term planning for universal usability and building accessibility into the design from the start saves both time and money. Making Web pages available to a wider audience and streamlining future updates to the site saves resources. Universal design addresses the needs and preferences of as many people as possible by making products, information, and the build environment more usable at little or no extra cost.
This site is, and will continue to be, a work in progress. The technology and practices that comprise universal design are constantly evolving. As my skills and knowledge evolve with them, I will be adding to and editing this content.
The ideal standard for Web accessibility and usability is a moving target, fueled by user experience. You're encouraged to e-mail me with any comments, questions, or suggestions.
What we label "disability" is complex. It isn't, only, a matter of individual physiology and psychology. It's the combined effect of interaction between a person’s body and the society in which the person lives. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important and well-intended document. But, it places the focus on "individuals with disabilities." It does define what should be done to "adapt" our environment to these individuals, and supports the rights of people who require accommodation. But these people and accommodations are somehow "other;" they are an after-thought. The language implies that accommodation is something "we" must do to meet "their" needs. The disbilty label is isolating. An inclusive approch to access reduces isolation.
By contrast, the World Health Organization (WHO) speaks of disability in terms of social context. They state clearly that everyone, at some point in their lives, will experience some form of disability. The effects of aging, circumstances, accident, trauma, and disease bring times of reduced function to us all. By the standards of the WHO, disability is a social issue.
Echoing these sentiments, Jessica FemWriter of the Hampshire College Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program wrote in her blog:
Whether it’s something that’s widely accommodated, like needing eyeglasses, or something “invisible,” like chronic pain or a neurological disorder; everybody has or will have something. If we think about it that way, it completely flips the idea of providing “extra” or “abnormal” accommodations, and shows that accessibility should be the norm the way that people who need some form of accommodation are the norm. People who are not stereotypically abled ARE the de facto majority; and, I’ll bet, the numerical majority. People who are mostly temporarily abled have somehow falsely been accorded power and privilege that leads them to push everyone else to the margins.
Inaccessible design contributes to the digital divide.1 Making the Web a truly worldwide source of information, available to all, should be a priority of electronic information designers and developers.
Image © Suzanne Tucker - used according to license
Despite the extensive US legislation to protect the right of people with disabilities, these laws, as they apply to the Web, are vague and confusing. What a Web content developer is required to do by law depends, primarily, on who the site represents, and in some case, what the funding source is. While parts of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act have been applied to the web, at this time they are only binding on government websites, and not fully binding until early in 2012. Even then, this will only be enforced on new sites, with the strong recommendation that older sites be brought up to standards.
While Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act may not apply to educational institutions, Section 504 does. Section 504 forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services. It defines the rights of individuals with disabilities to participate in, and have access to, program benefits and services. By implication, an educational site that does not meet or exceed the minimal standards set by Section 508 could be “denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.” The US Department of Education and the National Science Foundation funded a project to study, and put into practice, accessibility standards for educational websites. This project, The National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education, housed at the University of Washington, began in 2002 and ended in 2006. Much of the work they have done is now outdated, but their site is still maintained and has some valuable resources.
What is both interesting and disturbing is that the standards they set, with an eye towards achievability, have still not been implemented by most educational institutions. Laws in developed nations do exist to protect the right of the disabled, and these laws are being applied to the web though litigation. In the US, the National Foundation for the Blind sued Penn State over the inaccessibility of their websites, Arizona State for requiring students to use Kindle, and are currently requesting the US Department of Justice to investigate Google Aps for lack of accessibility. Successful suits have been brought in the US against corporate entries over the inaccessibility of their web content. As far back as 2002, both Priceline.com and RamadaInn.com settled a suit with the State of New York, and agreed to increase the accessibility of their sites.
Laws and their application are still being interpreted and refined. What seems clear is that there is a lot of work being done to set a standard of at least minimum accessibility, but these standards are not law, and are largely ignored. The available information and training on accessibility issues would suggest that the trend is toward a more accessible Web, and a form of standardized enforcement. Actual practice suggests Web accessibility is not a priority for most. So, why should a Web designer or developer strive for the best possible accessibility? Being ready if and when more specific law are put in place and enforced is one consideration. But, the primary issue is one of ethics and personal pride. As designers and developers, our names are on our product. We produce the best possible sites and site content because they are how the public knows us. If our product marginalizes a large segment of the population, what does that say about us and our work? Most of all, designers who strive for accessible site do so because it is the right thing to do.
Image © Kheng Ho Toh - used according to license
Most of us are familiar with the International Symbol of Access (ISA), also known as the (International) Wheelchair Symbol; the blue rectangle with the stylized person sitting in a wheelchair. It's a good symbol. It's recognizable to most everyone. It's a reminder that access is, or should be, a right, and that there are laws that protect those rights. It's common across many cultures. It does the job it was designed to do. But, what does it imply?
Wheelchairs are common enough, but they are not the norm, even for the so-called "disabled." This symbol perpetuates the notion of the disabled person as somehow "other." It reinforces the idea that disabilities are simple, clear, and visible. (To better understand why that is a problem, ask anyone with an invisible disability who has struggled to get the accommodations they need, and are entitled to. How many of us have heard replies to our accommodation requests that being with "But, you don't look . . .") And, even in the most enlightened communities, it is stigmatizing.
Given how effective and recognizable this symbol has become, it's unlikely to change. But, for the sake of discussion, I'd like to suggest a new symbol. We need a symbol that is inclusive, positive, and reminds us that access the responsibility of us all, and is good for us all.
Based on those criteria, I've designed one possible alternative. It is high-contrast, grey-scale, to acknowledge varieties of color perception. The image is a stylized pair of hands, holding up a bridge. Hands imply common effort, and common cause. A bridge is a tool for access over something that may otherwise be difficult or impossible to pass. The center of the bridge is a U, for universal. The symbol is intended to be positive, and imply proactivity. (Special copyright: You may use this symbol in electronic or print media. Your publication may be free or commercial, but you may not sell the symbol itself. Do not make any changes, other than scale, to this symbol. You must include a reference to this site as your source, but it does not need to be linked. If you would like a high-resolution version of this image for print, you may download one here. The name of this image is "A Universal Usability Symbol.")
1 "Digital Divide" is a term used to refer to the social imbalance inherent in lack of access to electronic information. It's most commonly used to refer to those barred from access for economic and political reasons. Accessibility issues related to individual needs and abilities are only one part of this problem. The wider discussion is beyond the scope of this site. A Web search for social justice and the digital divide will bring you to sites that address the larger issues.