Why should the web be accessible?

Ramón Voces Merayo

Citación recomendada: Ramón Voces Merayo. Why should the web be accessible? [en linea]. "Hipertext.net", num. 5, 2007. <http://www.hipertext.net>

  1. Why web accessibility?
  2. A social perspective
  3. A personal perspective
    3.1. Our view of disabilities
    3.2. The new interaction paradigms
  4. A technical perspective
  5. A financial perspective
    5.1. The impact on the company's intellectual capital
    5.2. The impact on website audience
    5.3. The impact on the website's efficacy
  6. A legal perspective
    6.1. The international scope
    6.2. The European scope
    6.3. The Spanish scope
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References


1. Why web accessibility?

Upon a first glance, there are many reasons not to implement accessibility on websites. From a business standpoint it is not a trivial process, nor inexpensive, and often not even required by the client. From an engineering perspective we are presented with additional roadblocks: lack of time, training, tools or developmental plans (Lazar, Dudley-Sponaugle, and Greenidge 2004/3, 269-288).

So it is necessary to understand why web accessibility is important and what benefits it provides. In this article we will discuss the implications of implementing web accessibility from the following points of view:

  1. A social perspective

  2. A personal perspective

  3. A technical perspective

  4. A financial perspective

  5. A legal perspective

2. A social perspective

Web usage is quickly spreading and is becoming an essential element in our daily lives. It is gradually being used more often to access all sorts of information and services: governmental, educational, entertainment, commercial, etc. and sometimes even substituting traditional methods.

For people with disabilities, the Web is an unprecedented opportunity to comfortably fully participate in society. With this, all the physical obstacles can be removed, and for the first time in history they can perform the same tasks in very similar conditions to people who are not disabled. This creates new communication, interaction and work opportunities, which would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to perform.

The common opinion is that people with disabilities are a minority. However, it is important to understand that disabled people can no longer be considered as such (Vanderheiden 1990, 383-396): in Spain there are more than 4 million people who suffer from some sort of disability, and in Europe the figure goes up to 42 million. Furthermore, the use of accessible technology, according to a Microsoft and Forrester Research study (Microsoft and Forrester Research 2003), can benefit more than 60% of the mid to severe disabilities.

In conclusion, to invest in accessibility would provoke a positive repercussion for a large number of people.


3. A personal perspective

From a more personal perspective, even the most egocentric or egoistic too, the following two aspects must be considered:

  1. Our position towards disabilities

  2. The new interaction paradigms

3.1. Our view of disabilities

For many people without disabilities, disabilities are often viewed as distant to them. However, it is important to realise that throughout our lives we may incur many disabilities, even though sometimes only temporary, and we are very likely to suffer from a disability as a senior citizen.


Figure 1 Evolution of disabilities by age


Figure 2 World population pyramids: distributed by age and sex; years 2000 and 2050.

As we can see in the figure above, there is a large correlation between age and disability. Moreover, the increase in lifespan along with low birth-rates is provoking the gradual ageing of the population. Without expanding on this too much, the UN predicts that by 2050, 40% of Europe's population will be older than 65 years old, and Spain would have the oldest population in the world with a percentage of 55%.

As a consequence, disability should be seen as a fact that affects the majority of people: it is simply a matter of time. Therefore, all current efforts in accessibility will provide benefits to all, including those who are currently not disabled.

3.2. The new interaction paradigms

The incessant evolution in computer and communication technologies is favouring the creation of new models for the relationship between people and computers.

A great example is that of ubiquitous computing. The concept coined by Mark Weiser (Weiser 1993, 71), is based on the idea that computer usage is diluted throughout the user's active environment.

Nowadays there are an infinite number of amazing gadgets with multiple functions and the ability to process and communicate. An excellent example is the Apple ´s iPhone which offers a mobile phone, digital camera, electronic agenda and multimedia player all in a device no greater than a conventional mobile phone.


Figure 3 Apple's iPhone

Despite these gadgets´ functional features, they all have a common characteristic: transportability. As a consequence they are very small relative to the features they provide.

From an interaction perspective, they are usually difficult to use. Their users are often faced with the same situations a disabled person faces in a conventional Web environment. For example, reading PDF files in a PDA that is not prepared for it, which is similar to the difficulty faced by a person with visual disabilities.

Therefore, implementing accessibility systems in these devices would benefit both the disabled and non-disabled.


4. A technical perspective

To make an accessible website is to make a technologically advanced, quality website.

The main advantage of websites´ with new technologies is the separation between a website's content and presentation. This new model allows for two key benefits, among others.

  1. Reduced maintenance, since redesigning a website only requires a change in presentation and not content. You can see a great example at http://www.csszengarden.com.

  2. Adaptability to the user device, meaning that the same content can be presented in different forms relative to the user's device. The figure shows how the popular Google search engine home page would appear on a mobile phone.




Figure 4 Mobile phone and Google


5. A financial perspective

Starting an accessible web project does not have to be more expensive. Even if it would be, it is not the initial investment that determines the viability or success of a project, but the cost-benefit relationship instead.

So it is convenient here to evaluate the benefits that accessible websites offer with respect to:

  1. The impact on the company's intellectual capital.

  2. The impact on the website's audience.

  3. The impact on the website's efficacy.

5.1. The impact on the company's intellectual capital

Many researchers have often noted that the real value of a company can not be expressed simply through its tangible assets, that is, those figures expressed in accounting registers. Instead there are various intangible assets that are not usually accounted for but that still have value. This idea is explained by a concept called intellectual capital.

Annie Brooking (Brooking 1996, 224) has classified intellectual capital into four groups:

  1. Market assets, which provide a competitive market advantage, such as the value of a brand.

  2. Intellectual property assets, which offer exclusive use of an intangible asset, like patents or an organisation's know-how.

  3. Human assets, found in employees, including training and experience.

  4. Infrastructural assets, or those methods and processes that allow an organisation to function in a specific fashion, like its information systems.


Figure 5 Intellectual capital

Without a doubt, investing in accessibility increases an organisation's intellectual capital, since:

  1. It increases its market assets, since investing in accessibility raises the company's image and prestige.

  2. It increases its human assets, since the employees must train and gain experience in implementing accessible websites.

  3. It increases intellectual property, since it requires the creation of methods for developing accessibility that increase the company's know-how.


Figure 6 Vodafone and accessibility

5.2. The impact on website audience

Accessibility should increase website visits for two reasons:

  1. Potential audience increases. As we have already noted from a social perspective, disability is not an exception. In Spain alone there are 4 million people who suffer from some type of disability.

  2. Accessibility increases web positioning. Codina defines web positioning as the set of procedures and techniques with the aim of providing a website or webpage maximum visibility on the Internet (Codina and Marcos 2005, 84-99). The aim, which is extremely desirable, is to appear in the top positions in search engines. There are many similarities in guides to create accessible content and guides for increasing web positioning (Moss 2005) (Google 2006). So increasing accessibility will increase positioning.

5.3. The impact on the website's efficacy

Creating a website should also increase user's experience with the website for two reasons:

  1. The website is more adaptable to diverse circumstances, for example the accessibility of devices or non-typical environments like in mobile or text only browsers.

  2. The website is more usable, since the structure and information provided must always be clear and consistent.

6. A legal perspective

Society's view of disability has progressively been changing in recent years, and many countries are creating the necessary legislation and regulations to encourage the disabled to become an active part of society.

Even though there is a clear trend in countries writing specific legislation and regulations, there is currently a lot of disparity between one and the other.

Therefore, when studying the legal aspects and its regulations, we must specify their scope of action. Here we will briefly discuss some of the measures that have been taken in the following fields:

  1. International

  2. European

  3. Spain

6.1. The international scope

This scope is strongly influenced by "The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities," a UN General Assembly Resolution approved on 20 December, 1993 called The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.

Even though it was approved before the expansion of information and communication technologies, in its famous rule number 5 (UN) it developed a set of measures that the States must start to improve its territory's conditions of accessibility.

This norm has played a vital role in other UN resolutions. For example, the 1998/31 resolution which recognises "that any violation of the fundamental principle of equality or any discrimination or other negative differential treatment of persons with disabilities inconsistent with the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities is an infringement of the human rights of persons with disabilities." Thus, creating an inaccessible website is an explicit violation of human rights.

6.2. The European scope

Within Europe there is great sensitivity towards disability. This sensibility is clearly stated in Article 21 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union where all discrimination concerning disability (among other causes) is prohibited, and for the disabled "to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community."

Of the measures adopted by the European Union relative to disability, the following are worth highlighting:

  1. Communication "Towards a barrier free Europe for people with disabilities" from 12 May, 2000. The aims outlined in this Communication are having a major influence on the way in which the EU and national disability policies and legislation are written. Upon the drafting of this measure, topics relative to accessibility and mobility have been approached from the perspective of equal opportunities and the right to participation.

  2. Directive 2000/31/EC, June 8, 2000, concerning certain legal aspects of the information society and electronic commerce in the internal market. The aim of the Directive is to guarantee common standards for legal criteria throughout Europe when providing services in the information society.

  3. Action plans. With the key aim of leading the new economy, since 1999 the European Commission has been starting various plans of action: eEurope 2002, eEurope 2005 and i2010. All of these plans have included the requirement of making sure the information society does not translate into social exclusion. Therefore, for example, eEurope 2005 created a specific line called eInclusion, within which the group eAccessibility was formed for researching web accessibility. Currently there is the i2010 initiative in which accessibility is clearly promoted, placing eInclusion as one of the three fundamental pillars.

6.3. The Spanish scope

In Spain there are various laws and Action Plans that prove an extended alienation to the EU´s sensitivity in terms of disability, sensitivity and that reflected in Article 49 of the 1979 Spanish Constitution, which urges the government to pay special attention to the needs and protection that disabled people require to practice their rights.

Of the measures adopted in Spain, the following deserve special attention:

  1. Law 34/2002 on 11 July, from the Information Society and Electronic Commerce Services. This is a transposition of the previously mentioned 2000/31/EC Directive, taking a step further by promoting and facilitating the adoption of web accessibility systems. So it is worth highlighting the Fifth Additional Provision called "Accessibility of electronically provided information for people with disabilities and the elderly" which requires that content be accessible before 31 December, 2005 in all of the Governmental websites or those financed by public funds.

  2. Law 51/2003, on 2 December, concerning Equal Opportunities, no Discrimination and Universal Access for People with Disabilities (Igualdad de Oportunidades, no Discriminación y Accesibilidad Universal de las Personas con Discapacidad or LIONDAU). Along the same lines of Law 34/2002, this law highlights concepts concerning non-discrimination, positive actions and universal accessibility, with a set of features aimed at guaranteeing and recognising people's right to disability and equal opportunities in all areas through the progressive and gradual introduction of accessibility in all environments, products and services of the information society.

  3. Plans of action. The first plan of action was called INFO XXI (2001-2003) with one of its three aims being to provide everybody with access to the Information Society. Once completed, they concluded that its aims were achieved, requiring another edition. So within the context of Law 51/2003 (LIONDAU), two parallel plans were created: I Plan Nacional sobre accesibilidad (2004-2012), with the key aim of reaching "Universal Accessibility" in all environments, products and services, and the II Plan de Acción para las personas con discapacidad 2003-2007, which was the continuation of the INFOXXI Plan.

7. Conclusions

In this article we have analysed the reasons for developing accessible websites from a social, personal, technical, financial and legal perspective.

Independent of the focus chosen, we conclude that the cost benefit relationship is always positive, therefore showing that there is no reason to create an inaccessible website.

Therefore, it is necessary for each and every one of us, in our corresponding site, to spread accessible websites as the only tool for a truly universal Web.


8. Acknowledgments

This project has been financed by the Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia (Spain) as part of the HUM2004-03162/FILO project.


9. References

Brooking, Annie. 1996. Intellectual Capital: Core asset for the third millennium. Intl Thomson Business Press.

Codina, Lluís, and Marcos, Mari-Carmen. 2005. "Posicionamiento web: conceptos y herramientas." El Profesional de la Informacion 14, no. 2:84-99.

Google. Webmaster Help Center - Webmaster Guidelines. 2006 [20/12 2006]. Available from http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769

Lazar, Jonathan, Alfreda Dudley-Sponaugle, and Kisha-Dawn Greenidge. 2004/3. Improving web accessibility: a study of webmaster perceptions. Computers in Human Behavior 20, no. 2:269-288.

Microsoft, and Forrester Research. The Wide Range of Abilities and Its Impact on Computer Technology. 2003 [01/11 2007]. Available from http://download.microsoft.com/download/0/1/f/01f506eb-2d1e-42a6-bc7b-1f33d25fd40f/ResearchReport.doc

Moss, Trenton. The secret benefit of accessibility part 2: A higher search engine ranking. 2005 [1/12 2006]. Available from http://www.e-consultancy.com/forum/101994-the-secret-benefit-of-accessibility-part-2-a-higher-search-engine-ranking.html?keywords=moss

ONU. UN Enable - Spanish Standard Rules, page 4 of 6. Available from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/dissres4.htm

Vanderheiden, G. C. 1990. Thirty-something million: Should they be exceptions? Human factors 32, no. 4:383-396.

Weiser, Mark. 1993. Hot topics-ubiquitous computing. Vol. 26. IEEE Computer Society.

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