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WEB Usability and Accessibility– It’s Time to Act Fast

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In an imperfect world that includes a significant number of variously challenged people, standards of usability and accessibility are required so that those with different abilities have full access to the World Wide Web. The author presents a primer on usability and accessibility standards.

According to United Nations’ statistics, around 15 per cent of the world’s total population, which amounts to one billion people, live with a disability. There are various categories of disability such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, visual impairments, brain injuries, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, medical disabilities, physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and speech and language disabilities. Persons with disabilities form one of the world’s largest minority communities. For a section of these people who are only partially disabled, the World Wide Web opens up new horizons.

As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, said, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.” The Internet has opened up new opportunities for people irrespective of their location and status. It can benefit the disabled and able, alike. In many ways, it is extremely useful for the disabled as it empowers them to get equal rights to information and other essential services. And with the evolution of the IoT, wearable technologies and smart devices offer ample opportunities for all of us to get connected, removing the barrier between able and disabled persons.

The people with visual impairments, motor and mobility issues, auditory impairments, cognitive/intellectual impairments can benefit tremendously from Web accessibility guidelines. As per the two-year-old World Population Ageing UN report, “The number of older persons was 841 million in 2013, which is four times higher than the 202 million that lived in 1950. The older population will almost triple by 2050, when it is expected to surpass the two billion mark.” The growing population of the elderly further highlights the urgent need for accessible websites.

Let’s try to understand the standards and guidelines that have been framed to improve accessibility. We can also look at the basic checks and some simple free tools which can be used to verify usability and accessibility.

Standards of accessibility
The international standards organisation, the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative), which comes under the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), defines standards for the WWW. The W3C has defined accessibility guidelines, based on which countries have derived their own standards. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standards, framed by WAI are followed by each country as guidelines and country-specific laws are made as per the demographic requirements. The websites targeted at a specific country should be compliant with its defined standards.

The Web accessibility guidelines are defined for government websites, yet, till the date of writing this article, most public websites do not have the mandate to follow Web accessibility guidelines. Still, it is advisable to conform with country-specific laws. However, only in the USA has there been considerable litigation to make websites or products more accessible. Firms like Hilton Worldwide, Ticketmaster, Netflix and Ebay have settled disputes and agreed to make their websites more accessible.

The guidelines

  • WCAG 2.0 — W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
  • WCAG 1.0 — W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
  • BITV – The German government’s standards
  • RGAA – The French government’s standards
  • JIS – The Japanese industry standard
  • Irish National IT Accessibility Guidelines
  • Section 508 – The US federal procurement standards
  • Stanca Act – Italian accessibility legislation

The European Union follows the same guidelines as defined by WCAG2.0. Unfortunately, India has not defined specific laws for Web accessibility but all government sites follow the standard WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

Usability, accessibility and assistive technologies
Usability is ease of use and accessibility means access to all, irrespective of technological or physical barriers. A site or product can be usable but not accessible, and vice-versa.
The term ‘usability’ covers user satisfaction, the user experience and usefulness. Web designers should opt for a user-centred approach. As Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, and renowned Web usability consultant, rightly pointed out, “Studies of user behaviour on the Web find a low tolerance for difficult designs or slow sites. People don’t want to wait. And they don’t want to learn how to use a home page. There’s no such thing as a training class or a manual for a website. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the home page — for a few seconds at most.” Usability, in terms of Web design, demands that the content be efficient, easy to understand and let the user reach the required data as fast as possible.

Accessibility literally implies the ability to access or as the dictionary states, ‘The quality of being at hand when needed.’ Accessible designs give users with disabilities, direct or indirect access to the content. Direct access implies that the user can access the content and can get the required information without any assistive technology devices. Accessibility advocates a universal design of the Web, which can be used by larger audiences across the globe while covering every possible range of disabilities. It may seem almost impossible to meet the diverse requirements for accessibility and usability design but, in turn, if the guidelines are studied and implemented properly in the design phase, the benefit is that the site addresses a larger user base.

Accessible design guidelines define a standard format that assistive technology developers use in assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices to facilitate differently able users to comprehend and overcome their disability in some way or the other. The screen reader is an example of an assistive technology which converts the text on websites into speech. It is software that is installed on the PC and when we visit websites, the text is spoken out audibly for visually challenged users.
The screen reader comes as commercial or free versions. Some of the free versions of the screen reader can be downloaded from the links given below:


How a screen readers works
Screen readers interact with the Web browser using common Accessibility APIs which are built into the browser’s applications. The irony is that, currently, there is no cross-platform accessibility API. So if the screen reader works perfectly on one browser, accessing the same website via another browser could mean an entirely different user experience, with some features missing.

To integrate accessibility in Java based products/applications after javax.accessibility class can be used. Microsoft products and browsers use Microsoft Active Accessibility APIs or MSAA. In GNOME, two types of APIs are defined – for the client side, it is Assistive Technology Service Provider Interface (AT-SPI)) and for the server-side, it is the Accessibility Toolkit (ATK).

There are browser extension plugins like Firevox ( which work in Firefox browsers; Chromevox for Chrome Browser ( and a similarly specific screen reader for Safari, the Mac based browser. These browser based screen readers read out the content directly from the browser and separate software need not be installed.

The screen reader queries the browser accessibility APIs to fetch the information from the Document Object Model (DOM) present in the browser and conveys it to the screen reader users. Each implementation of an accessibility API defines its own roles, which are used by the browsers.

WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite. When it is added to the Web page, the browser detects the ARIA attribute and updates the information on its accessibility API. The screen reader queries the browser’s accessibility APIs and gets the updated information. ARIA adds dynamic content and advanced technologies which have been developed using Ajax, HTML and JavaScript, and other latest technological improvements. WAI-ARIA describes many new navigation techniques to mark regions and also includes common structures like menus, primary content, secondary content, banner information, etc.

Simple accessibility checks for websites
For screen readers to work properly, the accessibility APIs are to be implemented properly. Even for basic websites, the simple, preliminary, accessibility checks and guidelines listed below can be followed:

  • All functions to be available via the keyboard
  • The display setting should be visible for all contrast modes. Provide enough contrast between the text and its background
  • Every image/picture should have meaningful alternate text
  • For every complex user function, there should be an associate keyboard shortcut
  • The page title should be meaningful and should describe the accessed Web page
  • Heading levels should have a meaningful hierarchy
  • When texts are zoomed or enlarged, the Web page’s design or functionality should not get broken
  • Labels and form control should be keyboard accessible and the labels need to be proper
  • All the media in the Web page ought to be accessible using audio, video and text formats
  • Columns should be added in data tables and row headers should be identified using tags
  • If possible, CSS should be used for tables
  • Table cells should be associated with proper IDs and headers
  • Repeatedly flashing images should not be used. Never use the strobe effect
  • Plug-in details should be explained properly and downloading the plugin should be accessible-friendly
  • Any of the documents formats like PDFs, etc, should be accessible with assistive technologies

These guidelines or checks can easily be integrated at the time of designing a new website.

Tools to check accessibility
There are many free and commercial tools that can be used to test the website’s accessibility.

  • http://www.w3.oorg/WAI/ER/tools/complete

A few thoughts on usability and accessibility
Usability and accessibility testing should be done for all electronic and information technology related products.

Even though guidelines are defined, the questions that remain are, do we have enough motivation as business owners or product designers to make websites and products globally and uniquely accessible? And do we have the required skill sets to test the accessibility of a product or website?

Ignorance is an easy excuse to avoid addressing problems but awareness is the first step forward. According to NASSCOM, the software sector reached aggregated revenues of US$ 147 billion in 2015 and with a possible 2,000 software start-ups a year by 2020, its high time the Web usability and accessibility guidelines are taken into consideration, properly.

Many of us may not be directly involved in the design phase of Web based products and our governments may be trying their best to pass some accessibility related bill or law. But we need not wait for others to act; and should instead try to contribute to the cause in any way, even if it seems insignificant at times.