Accessibility of Online Information

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Robert Luke
University of Toronto

There are many digital divides -- those based on economics, gender, race, class, and ability. We can understand these divides by dividing them into two main categories -- accessibility to, and accessibility of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Accessibility to ICTs means having access to the technologies that connect one to the network society. Accessibility of ICTs means that these technologies of access are accessible to those with disabilities. But what does it mean to provide accessible ICTs and online environments?


"For people without disabilities, technology makes things convenient, whereas for people with disabilities, it makes things possible . . . [this] fact brings with it an enormous responsibility because the reverse is also true. Inaccessible technology can make things absolutely impossible for disabled people, a prospect we must avoid."

Judith Heumann, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education. Keynote address to Microsoft employees and experts on disabilities and technology, Redmond, Washington, February 19, 1998


Just as buildings are built with accessibility factored into their architecture from the ground up, so too must WWW and Internet architecture factor in accessibility initiatives from the outset to ensure equitable access to online resources. Accessibility standards such as the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI) Guidelines offer developers guidelines for designing inclusive information infrastructures.

The WAI guidelines provide a blueprint for ensuring that ICTs used to access them are accessible to all. They are meant to prevent digital divides from growing disproportionately to the continued use of new technologies. By taking into account accessibility considerations, people with physical and/or learning disabilities are encouraged to become producers of information, and not just passive consumers. This is an important point, and a distinction worth making. It is one thing to ensure that ICTs and online media are rendered accessible for those using assistive devices (screen readers, special keyboards, mouse devices). It is another thing entirely to ensure that people with disabilities can actively participate in creating content for the online world. A key factor of accessibility is ensuring that those with disabilities can access both the information produced for and in the electronic world, and equally as important, can also access and use the tools needed to produce this content.

Here we can return to our accessibility to and ofdistinction. Accessibility of means making electronic information accessible according to the W3C’s WAI guidelines. Accessibility to ICTs means making the tools required to produce electronic content accessible also. These two taken together means ensuring that all people, regardless of ability, can participate equally in the production of the network society, in the information produced and broadcast via communication technologies. Creating knowledge from this information is what defines the network society. To our accessibility bifurcation we must add the ability to assess, to decode, and to use information, central components of what we can call digital literacy. Ensuring this knowledge benefits from all voices ensures that this network society is inclusive, representational, and reflective of the society at large.

Have You Unplugged Your Mouse Today?

What exactly does it mean to make Web content accessible? A review of accessibility issues by various disability groups will enable us to understand the barriers faced by a significant proportion of the population. It is useful to remember that the percentage of people with either a physical or learning disability that may impair access is around 20+% (54 million people in the US alone) (Waddell, 1999), and grows significantly according to age group.

How Many People Have Disabilities (US)?

Age Group Proportion of People with Disabilities
0 -- 21 10%
22 -- 44 14.9%
45 -- 54 24.5%
55 -- 64 36.3%
65 -- 79 47.3%
80+ 71.5%

Visual and hearing impairments are among the disabilities associated with ageing. U.S. Census Bureau (Qtd. in “Accessibility in Web Design” )

Disabilities that may impair access include visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments. To give you an idea of what barriers these users face, here is a list of some difficulties by disability group:

Vision --include blind and low vision people who use screen readers to access electronic information. Items that may be inaccessible or cause difficulty for vision impaired people include:
· Some Java elements
· Browse buttons
· Poorly labeled form elements
· Inconsistencies in layout
· Inconsistencies in language
· Surprise popup windows
· Multiple frames and nested tables
· Other problems included the illogical display of steps required for task completion, and confusing and ambiguous use of terminology

Hearing -- hearing impaired people need closed captioning for audio so this information will not be lost to the hearing impaired.

Mobility -- people with mobility impairments may use screen readers, laser and infrared head mouse devices, special keyboards and other products to access online and electronic information. They face problems similar to those encountered by the visually impaired.

Cognitive and Language/ Learning Disabilities -- people with these kinds of special needs use a variety of access devices to help improve access and cognition. Difficulty with language usage, the manner in which text and links are encoded, and the use of colors, fonts, sounds, graphics, all may have an adverse impact on LD people. Other issues include:
· Inconsistencies in layout and language
· Absence of alternative formats (no redundant display of information)
· Difficulty with multi-step activities
· Confusing terminology (e.g. "click here")
· Complexities in page/site payout and lack of clear and consistent instructions or other navigational aids.

Other factors affecting all disabled users include:
· Lack of experience with Internet/WWW technologies
· Lack of experience with assistive and adaptive technologies
· Operating system, software conflicts and difficulties
· Sites and technologies that do not support alternative access devices and strategies



Following the W3C WAI guidelines is one way to ensure that all online information is accessible to persons with disabilities or to those who rely on adaptive and assistive technologies. Voluntary compliance on the part of all online providers will help the evolving standards of the WWW keep pace with the population. However, it is imperative to seek ways to encourage the accessible design of web materials from their first iteration. Inclusive design practices must take an active role in directing the development of accessible technology.

Equally as important is the need to educate all users and developers of ICTs on accessibility. This includes focusing on the ways in which the network society -- the culture in which ICTs are embedded -- can best respond to the needs of all people. This means looking at the social contexts in which technology sits, and examining the broader issues of access and living in a culture increasingly dominated by various mediating technologies. It means focusing less on individual accommodations and more on providing inclusive network infrastructures from the ground up. We need to develop a cultural or environmental approach to providing accessible ICTs and online environments. By building in “electronic curbcuts” from the ground up, online media and ICTs offer an inclusive opportunity for all people to participate in digital information exchange. Accessibility affects us all: Some of us directly; all of us indirectly.

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