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
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.
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,
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!
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!
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
- 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
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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
and is reprinted here with permission.
Copyright © 1999 Kynn Bartlett,