The Accessible Web Explained (part 1)
Web accessibility concerns making the Web accessible to all; it is about the removal of barriers to promote equality of opportunity and access to all who might use the Web regardless of limitations of capabilities.
Once the Internet became the World Wide Web, propelled by the first popular browser, Mosaic, website growth became exponential. So too did the number of webmasters, most of whom, with the advent of software such as Microsoft’s FrontPage, could develop a website with relative ease, but did so with scant attention to the needs of individuals with disabilities.
Disparate technologies evolved along with new tags (code elements employed in the construction of web pages) which either ignored or sought to augment and reinterpret the working recommendations developed by the W3C. Businesses such as Macromedia developed Flash, streaming media technologies, which originally totally ignored the needs of impaired users. In short, it became a free-for-all as companies fought for the currencies of webmasters.
Recognising the need for accessibility development guidelines, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed an initiative of best practice governing the creation of websites, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), specifically for people with disabilities, either cerebral or physical, a section of which – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) - addressed methods of website construction as a set of 14 guidelines with one or more associated checkpoints for developers to follow when marking up web content.
The current guidelines, version 1, were established and finalised in 1999, the latest draft, version 2, is due for release in 2006.
Not Just for the Disabled
Although the WAI was developed to assist people with disabilities navigate, view, interact with and participate in the Web, accessibility extends beyond the WAI and embraces techniques which help individuals without perceptible impairments enjoy a better web experience.
Not all surfers have high speed broadband links, whether through constraints of cost or limitations in the availability of technology in isolated communities. Such individuals may be restricted to dialup modem web access, where sites heavily dependant on images or developed using such software as Flash or other multimedia techniques that demand fast download lines make content access a tedious process.
Emergent technologies such as the Blackberry and other mobile web or WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) cell phones present accessibility issues, not necessarily with the physical nature of the interface but with techniques employed to exploit and make best use of their restrictive features such as the often diminutive screen size and limited reception speeds (bandwidth).