What “accessible” means

To understand what “accessible” means it’s helpful to first look at a broader term that encompasses much of accessibility – universal design.

“Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Ron Mace, Center for Universal Design, NC State University

Basically, universal design means that as many people as possible will be able to use our products without the user having to do any extra work or jump through any extra hoops.

The history of accessibility for people with disabilities is full of hoop jumping and often falling flat on their faces. Special arrangements are constantly needing to be made in order for people with certain disabilities to interact with things many of us take for granted. One of the great promises of the Web is that through technology, people with disabilities can often fully engage with an environment as effectively as people without disabilities. The advances in assistive technologies – technologies people with disabilities use to compensate for their impairment – have made this a reality, and often no special arrangement has to be made to allow them to do so.

When something is accessible, it means that user can interact with your Web page with any assistive technology they may use, such as the following.

  • screen reading software which reads the page to the user
  • magnification software that enlarges the screen
  • speech recognition software that allows users to control your page with voice commands
  • alternative input devices that mimic a standard keyboard
  • refreshable braille displays which transform the content into braille

In order to make all of this work careful planning must be made when designing electronic content. While assistive technologies have made significant advances, they cannot perform magic. There are standards defined that tell developers how things need to be created in order to work with assistive technologies, and they tell the assistive technology vendors what to expect so they can build their devices to handle the content.

These standards are not just for people with disabilities. These are the same standards promoted by international organizations to help define a common language for Web technologies so that all of our browsers, Web pages, and Web applications can work together.