Web and user accessibility mean that individuals with disabilities can use web programs or applications and have the ability to navigate, perceive, understand, and interact with the content.

In order to support this, web technology providers need to build features that allow for alternative methods of using their programs. These methods are highlighted in the WCAG 2.0, or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, whose goal is to provide guidelines on how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.

They are also highlighted under Section 508 of the ADA, or the American Disabilities Act, which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1990. The main intent of the law is to protect disabled individuals against discrimination. As a wide-ranging civil rights law, the ADA also covers user accessibility guidelines to electronic and informational technology systems.

Generally speaking, we can categorize the main requirements for web accessibility into two buckets: interaction and interpretation.

As previously stated, people with disabilities need to be able to navigate and interact with the content on the web. While using a mouse is the most common method to navigate the web, alternative methods need to be introduced for blind users or users with motor impairment. This is where keyboard navigation comes in. Keyboard navigation allows end users to navigate through and interact with web content by tabbing through the content in a linear fashion. Whereas a mouse allows for direct access to links on a screen, tabbing is used to jump from link to link, one at a time, until the user finds one of interest.

Fortunately, most links are text based, so in the case of a blind user, the text can easily be converted to speech and therefore translated. This is typically done via a screen reader. But how can one interpret non-text based assets such as images? This is where alternative text comes in to facilitate interpretation.

Alternative text is a word or phrase that can be inserted into the code of a web page to describe the contents of an image to web users. The intent is to convey the same information through alternative text as is conveyed through the image. If implemented properly, a user would then be able to tab through the web program and interpret both text and non-text content that is being displayed via a screen reader.

As for video content, closed captioning or subtitles serve as a similar medium to make sure the content is accessible to all users.

Lastly, organizations are encouraged to self-regulate to meet accessibility standards and, when applicable (e.g. during a purchase), disclose user accessibility information. This information can be disclosed through a VPAT, or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, which evaluates how accessible a technology product is. The VPAT document is made up of the following sections, and technology providers should fill out all sections that are applicable:

  • Section 1194.21 Software Applications and Operating Systems
  • Section 1194.22 Web-based Internet Information and Applications
  • Section 1194.23 Telecommunications Products
  • Section 1194.24 Video and Multi-media Products
  • Section 1194.25 Self-Contained, Closed Products
  • Section 1194.26 Desktop and Portable Computers
  • Section 1194.31 Functional Performance Criteria
  • Section 1194.41 Information, Documentation and Support

While this post highlights the main aspects of web accessibility, it certainly does not cover all items. Web technology providers are encouraged to diligently look through the VPAT document and decipher which sections are applicable to their product(s).
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