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What is Web Accessibility and Why Does it Matter?

According to the American Community Survey (ACS) from 2015, roughly 12.6% of the population, or about 40 million Americans, are categorized as having disabilities.  These can range from physical disabilities like hearing or vision impairment, or limiting conditions like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, to mental disabilities ranging from depression and schizophrenia to autism and down syndrome, just for example.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), discrimination against disabled persons is legally prohibited.  This means that disabled persons must have equal employment opportunities and they must be granted reasonable access to public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and so on.  This act protects the rights of disabled persons to fair and equal treatment under the law.

How does the internet factor in?  As a form of telecommunications available for public consumption, the worldwide web and the many platforms that utilize it must make accommodations to ensure that all people have opportunities for access, regardless of any disabilities.  This is where web accessibility comes in.  What is it and why is it important?

What is Web Accessibility?

The concept of web accessibility centers on ensuring equal access to content, as the name implies, regardless of disabilities that may otherwise limit accessibility.  It requires platform creators and web designers to consider how those with visual, speech, auditory, physical, cognitive, and neurological impairment can enjoy equal access to digital content.

In many cases, those with disabilities rely on assistive technologies, such as speech recognition software, screen reader software, screen magnification software, and/or special keyboards.  Web accessibility could include creating platforms compatible with such devices or programming.  It could mean taking an approach to web design that involves universal design principles.  What is universal design?

The idea behind universal design is creating accessible platforms and content from the outset, or crafting online environments with the goal of making them easy for all people to access and use.  By treating persons with disabilities as an afterthought in the design process, developers risk having to go back and impose a variety of changes based on different sets of challenges.  Universal design, on the other hand, benefits everyone by creating universally user-friendly environments and content.

How Does it Work?

Implementing universal design principles means utilizing proper design and coding to ensure that web tools and platforms do not create barriers for people with disabilities attempting to access them.  When design takes into account the vast array of hardware, software, and people that could potentially access a platform or website, universal accessibility can be accomplished.  It’s really no different than accounting for access based on different language preferences or locations.

In addition to utilizing universal design principles, online platforms and websites can also conduct accessibility testing using a variety of accepted testing protocols, procedures, and software solutions to ensure that content is made available to persons with a variety of disabilities.

Why is it So Important?

As public institutions, libraries offer the knowledge and entertainment of books to everyone, which is why these buildings must be equipped with accommodations like ramps and/or elevators to ensure accessibility for people in wheelchairs, just for example.  The worldwide web must offer similar access to channels for information, communication, and other amenities.

This benefits society as a whole, including not only those with disabilities, but also businesses looking to connect with all demographics, as well as those without disabilities who gain the advantages of online environments featuring universal design principles.

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