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27 June 2006

Web accessibility is free

By Andrew Clifford

Web accessibility is not an expensive imposition just to make your website usable by a few visitors with special needs. It makes your website more effective for all your visitors, and pays for itself.

Philip Crosby’s book "Quality is Free" makes the point that an investment in quality pays for itself quickly, and that quality becomes an ongoing source of profit.

In the same way, making your website accessible is free.

I was working on our website assessment tool (which you can try for free). We had divided our assessment criteria into three main sections: content, structure and interoperability. I thought we had missed out a section for accessibility, and naively asked a colleague what we should have in it. He quite rightly pointed out that accessibility is something you have to build in to the content and structure of the website, and into the technology choices you make. Accessibility isn't an add-on.

Nearly all accessibility requirements are just good practice that will help all your visitors.

To be accessible, you need to use simple and clear language, divide information into manageable chunks and use subheadings. By doing this, you get your message across to all visitors. Remember that most people just scan-read.

To be accessible, you need to have meaningful link text, provide a site map or table of contents, and provide consistent navigation. Clearly this makes it easier for all visitors.

To be accessible, you need to separate content, layout and style. You should use cascading style sheets (CSS) to keep the layout and styling separate from the underlying HTML. This makes website maintenance easier. It makes the site usable on multiple devices, such as mobile phone browsers, and on future browsers and devices.

If you use active content such as JavaScript or Flash, accessibility can become harder. You may need to provide an HTML-only alternative for when these are not available. But an HTML-only version has other benefits. Many browsers do not support active content, and often people turn it off because of security fears. Search engines only understand text, so an HTML-only version makes your site easier to find in search engines.

For most sites it is more effective to avoid active content completely and only provide an HTML version. Put your effort into understanding your visitors and into superlative content, not special effects.

Accessibility requirements are not an imposition. They help your website meet the special needs of a minority of visitors and the general needs of the majority. By making your website more effective for all your visitors, accessibility pays for itself quickly and becomes an ongoing source of profit.

Accessibility is for all, and accessibility is free.

To find out more about web accessibility, read the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative, especially the Business Case for Web Accessibility. Also try out our website assessment tool (for free), which provides a high-level analysis your website's accessibility.

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