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Common Myths About Web Accessibility

By Kynn Bartlett



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There're a lot of misconceptions about accessible web authoring practices out there (and sloppy journalism on the subject hasn't helped much), and so many people may have formed an entirely wrong idea about what web accessibility means.

Fortunately, the HTML Writers Guild's AWARE Center is here to shine the light of truth on these common myths; we'll help you understand what's correct and what's not.

MYTH #1: An accessible web page is dull, boring plain text.

This is a particularly threatening idea for the graphic designers out there -- luckily, it's a completely untrue myth.

Web accessibility is NOT about making text-only pages or writing "down" to older browsers. In general, the guidelines to accessible web authoring do not say "don't do that" -- rather, they say "here's how you can do that, accessibly."

The ALT attribute of the IMG tag is a good example. ALT allows you add text to substitute for an image; to make a page accessible, you add the ALT text, you don't throw away the IMG entirely! In the same way, the accessibility considerations of HTML 4.0 let you incorporate nearly any kind of "advanced technology" you want into your page while still preserving the ability to make your page completely accessible.

Web accessibility is never about restricting your snazzy multimedia/graphical design; it's about enhancing it!

MYTH #2: Accessible web authoring is expensive and time-consuming.

I've recently read someone's argument that creating an accessible web page has a great cost -- perhaps 10% to 50% more in the development phase -- in terms of money and time. I don't buy it.

In short, this person's argument boiled down to "if I create an HTML page that is not interoperable, not platform-independent, not accessible -- I can do it less time than a correctly done web page." Well, duh; if I'm writing a book and I don't bother with trivialities such as grammar, spell-checking, or proofreading, I could probably get it done quicker too.

But interoperability and platform-independence are the cornerstones of the web; if you've made a web page that is not accessible, you've just made it! By design, the web is meant to function for everyone; if your page is not accessible, something is broken!

So, when you're saying "I can make inaccessible pages quicker", you're really bragging about your skill at producing garbage. I hope your web design clients (if you have any) don't find out!

MYTH #3: Web accessibility is too difficult for the average web designer.

Some people are intimidated by accessibility requirements. Do I have to learn HTML 4? What's CSS? What in the world is an ABBR, a LONGDESC, or an OBJECT??

In truth, accessible web authoring practices are not really that hard to learn. They can be boiled down to a few easy principles, such as "don't assume everyone has the same computer you do", "the web is an information medium, so make sure your information is not getting lost", and "provide alternative ways to get at that information". None of these is earthshakingly difficult to comprehend; the WAI's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide specifics on how to apply these principles when making your web page.

The HTML Writers Guild provides a number of resources on accessible web authoring through the AWARE Center, including links and articles (like this one you're reading now) as well as regular sessions of an online course in accessible web design.

The best thing about learning accessible design practices is not just that you'll create more accessible web pages -- you'll learn more about the web itself, how it works, how it's meant to work, and the potential of the World Wide Web as a communcations medium. To understand the web fully, you need to understand accessibility.

MYTH #4: Disabled people don't use the web!

Some web authors will go on at length about how they know their audience, and none of them are disabled, so they don't have to account for them in the design of their website. Now, the problems with this approach are:

  • It's somewhat like the office on the 2nd floor with no elevator where the workers shrug and tell you, "No people in wheelchairs ever come to this office, so I don't see why we'd need to be wheelchair accessible..." Obviously, they can't get to the office, so they're never seen! Many times potential users of a website are turned away because they can't use the site at all! This will skew things, obviously. If you have no disabled users, that may well be a sign that you have a worse problem than you thought!
  • Secondly, how do these designers know who is using their pages? HTTP_USER_DISABILITY is not a standard HTTP header! Unless you specifically ask, and most people have not, you have no idea how many of your website's users may have special needs that you're unaware of! If you insist that you have no disabled users, you'll need to back that claim up. Unlike the offline world, many disabilities are NOT obvious even when interacting with someone in a live chat or via email. Don't base an exclusionary policy on ignorance!

So, how many users do have disabilities? Georgia Tech asked this question in their regular surveys of Internet users, and the results were pretty high. One user in 12 (8%) has some kind of disability, and 4% of Internet users have visual impairments. More than you thought?

The numbers will only increase in the future, as Internet access becomes more widespread AND as the average age of the web user increases. Remember, the so-called "baby boomers" are getting older, and with age can come decreases in sensory ability, cognition, and mobility. It would be tragic if the current generation of web authors laid the foundation for a global communications medium that they won't be able to use in 10, 20, 40 years as time catches up with them!

MYTH #5: Good assistive technology can solve all accessibility problems.

In the last few years there have been some amazing advances in "assistive technology" -- gadgets, hardware, and software that allow disabled folks to do many of the things that I take granted. Speech synthesis, voice recognition, braille terminals, and a wide variety of specialized input devices.

Some people will tell you that all that's needed is simply to have better tech toys for the disabled, and the problem of web inaccessibility will be solved -- no need for the web author to do anything in particular since it's not her problem.

Unfortunately, though, this isn't the case, for one simple reason. Technology can only provide whatever information it's been given. A specialized web browser can't read the web author's mind and know what she "meant by" an image. That information MUST be supplied, and it's up to the author to dilligently provide enough information to make the web page usage.

The neatest gizmo in the world can only do what it's been told to do; for this reason, web authors will always have to make sure they are providing accessible content.

MYTH #6: Web accessibility only helps people with disabilities.

Is web accessibility just about making sure blind people can "see" your pictures or deaf people can "hear" your multimedia files? Not at all; although it is important to keep in mind that you are meeting the needs of particular groups, the benefits of accessible web authoring extend to everyone.

Some ways in which accessible web authoring practices will improve your web site:

  • Your site can be used in the latest technology, such as hand-held computers, Internet-enabled pagers, and web telephones
  • Search engines will index your site easier, because of your well-structured design and the text alternatives to your multimedia content
  • Your navigation scheme will be easier for everyone to use so your content can be reached quickly
  • New web applications that haven't yet been developed will be able to access your site, because it's designed to established standards
  • You'll be ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding XML and other highly structured content languages

More Myths?

If you've got any other myths you'd like explored, or if you disagree with me, feel free to mail me about it. Well written letters, pro or con, may be posted here so if you've like your viewpoints posted, indicate such when writing. Oh, you can also let me know if you found this informative at all!

This essay copyright 1999 by Kynn Bartlett <kynn@idyllmtn.com> and is reprinted here with permission.


Copyright 1999 Kynn Bartlett, <kynn@kynn.com>


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