Disabled Accessibility: The Pragmatic Approach

by Jakob Nielsen on June 13, 1999

It has gotten much easier to advise people on making it possible for users with disabilities to use a website: just follow the official Web Accessibility Initiative Standard (WAI) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The new design standard includes many of the elements known to enhance the usability of a UI standard, including a clear checklist and specific technical implementation instructions . The only thing missing is an ample set of examples. Maybe the W3C was hindered by their status as an "official" organization and felt unable to use screenshots of current corporate websites as examples of discrimination against users with disabilities.

Pragmatics: Get Top Priorities Fixed First

I particularly like the prioritized list of design rules:

  • 17 high-priority rules: follow these or many users will not be able to use the site at all.
  • 33 medium-priority rules: violating these rules will make it difficult, but not impossible to use the site.
  • 16 lower-priority rules that do improve accessibility but can be violated without hurting users too much.

Obviously, the high-priority rules should be followed by all sites as a basic requirement for a web design to be acceptable. It would not surprise me if we start seeing money-back guarantee in design contracts that state that clients don't have to pay for sites that violate these rules.

Without priorities, many sites would have been overwhelmed by the full set of 66 rules. When faced with the choice between perfection and doing nothing, most projects would have to do nothing, so the third choice is refreshing and the way to get people to start doing the most important things first.

The official standard tells you what ought to be done. In practice, it is necessary to prioritize standard-compliance on large sites and plan a staged roll-out of accessibility:

  1. The home page and high-traffic pages should be redesigned to follow the high-priority accessibility rules immediately. The same is true for any pages on the critical path to successful completion of e-commerce purchases or other important transactions.
  2. All new pages should follow the high-priority and medium-priority rules, and checking for compliance should be made part of the organization's verification procedures for new content.
  3. Medium-traffic pages should be gradually redesigned to follow the high-priority accessibility rules.
  4. As a longer-term goal , redesign high-traffic pages to follow all three levels of accessibility rules and recommend that new pages also follow the lower-priority rules as much as possible.
  5. Low-traffic old pages may be left alone unless they concern matters of particular interest to users with disabilities.

Some accessibility advocates will deplore this staged approach and demand that all pages be made to comply with all the rules immediately . Unfortunately, this is simply not possible for most sites and managers will ignore accessibility unless they are presented with a plan that works and places the most important improvements first.

Follow Proprietary Accessibility Guidelines

In addition to the official accessibility rules from international bodies like the W3C, I also recommend following the proprietary guidelines from technology vendors if you use their technology on your site. In particular, follow Sun Microsystem's UI guidelines  for any Java applets and Microsoft's UI guidelines  for any ActiveX controls. These vendor guidelines will ensure that any such non-standard Web content is still accessible.

End of Single-Design Pages?

The WAI continues to promote the original ideal of Web design: a single HTML page that will adapt to all different usage circumstances, from huge monitors to small hand-helds and from seeing to blind users.

Some aspects of the single-design approach do make sense: for example use liquid layouts that adapt to the available window instead of a frozen layout that only works on a certain size monitor. Similarly, many simple designs can be made accessible for seeing and blind users by simply adding appropriate ALT texts for the images.

But I am not sure that single-design pages will be able to deliver optimal usability in the future. For example, screen sizes will soon differ so drastically between high-end office workstations and small mobile devices that the same pages will not satisfy both. And I also think that one can make pages much more usable for blind users and users with other disabilities by designing explicitly for these groups.

The old approach of a "text-only" alternative may rise again: both for mobile users and for disabled users, though the two different sets of circumstances lend themselves to different designs, even within a text-only paradigm.

So how can we possibly maintain many different designs for each piece of content? The solution probably lies in template-driven, database-backed publishing with more intelligently-marked-up XML content that is transformed into appropriate hypertext units for each class of users and devices.


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