A few words on accessibility

Accessibility is taken for granted in most of America – all parking lots have handicapped spots, elevators or ramps exist as alternatives to stairs, closed-captioning is available for virtually all television channels and movies, and Braille is even available on drive-up ATMs.

On the Web, however, accessibility is a word that has been getting a lot of attention but not a lot of action. Some people like the idea of web accessibility, but don’t really know what it means; others may not even realize that there are some users who simply can’t access their web sites; and a few may know about accessibility, but not care enough to take the time to make their sites accessible. If you keep up on your statistics and care about giving customers the best product you possibly can, you don’t fall into any of those camps. Here are the biggest reasons to make a push for web accessibility.

First and foremost, web accessibility is simply the respectful thing to do. Ignoring an estimated 750 million people is no way to run a business of any sort. Making a web site that isn’t accessible is like making an alternate version of your web site in Spanish that simply says “Go away.” On the other hand, users who have trouble accessing web sites will be eternally grateful to those companies that take the time to include them.

If that’s not compelling enough a reason, designing accessible web sites is now law. Leaving your web site inaccessible is a form of discrimination, and, by way of the 1996 Telecommunications Act [link: http://www.fcc.gov/telecom.html], is now illegal. The U.S. Justice Department has ruled that web sites are public accommodations and must therefore be made accessible to those with disabilities. Major lawsuits have already been filed against major players like AOL, and the movement is gaining momentum.

From a business standpoint, making web pages accessible is a cost-effective way to expand your web site’s audience. If you can offer 750 million people something your competitors aren’t, you’ll be that far ahead of the game. The extra work required to make a web site accessible only represents a 1-2% increase in cost, but can increase a web site’s market by up to 20%. That number grows even greater when other groups are figured in–for instance, making a web site accessible for people with disabilities usually makes that web site more accessible for people using PDAs or cell phones to browse the Internet.

Lastly, accessible web sites are well-designed web sites, even by traditional standards. Stripping out things like tables and spacer images and replacing them with things like divs and CSS not only aids people using screen readers, but also makes the file sizes much smaller, saving on bandwidth costs, and makes the pages’ layouts much easier to control, saving on design costs. A web page using stylesheets loads faster than one using tables, so the user experience is improved. Everyone wins.

With so much to gain, one really can’t afford not to make accessible web sites. Screen reader technology is still improving and browsers have limited support for accessibility features at this time; but designing accessible web sites is the way of the future of web design, and it’s best to be ready for that future when it comes.

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