Getting Two for the Price of One: Accessibility and Usability

By Kirkpatrick, Cheryl H. | Computers in Libraries, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Getting Two for the Price of One: Accessibility and Usability


Kirkpatrick, Cheryl H., Computers in Libraries


Did you realized that if you comply with accessibility guidelines to accommodate people with disabilities, you'll be making your Web site work much better for everyone?

Everyone loves a bargain. I scour ads hunting for the best deals because it pains me to pay full price for anything My favorites are "Buy one/get one free" or "two for the price of one" sales. This attitude carries over into other aspects of my life. I am as stingy with my time as I am with my money, and I want to get double duty out of every moment possible. For instance, I always carry reading material in my car just in case I have a few unoccupied minutes while waiting for one of my children to finish an activity. And last spring, as a consultant, I made recommendations to a private company on how to optimize its Web site for search engines. Using the same research, I wrote an article for Marketing Library Services. So the time spent on research was a "twofer," two for the price of one.

In this article, I am going to tell you about another twofer, Web accessibility and usability. If you create a Web site that is accessible to people with disabilities, then you increase the usability of that site for everyone. I'll explain how.

Why Accessibility Is Interesting and Important

Historically, many items that have been invented to help people overcome disabilities have also benefitted others. The first typewriter was made by Pellegrino Turn in 1808 to help his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono write legibly. Whitcomb L. Judson invented the zipper to help a friend who was unable to fasten his shoes because of a bad back. How many of you have read the captions provided on a TV when in a noisy bar or gym? These are prime examples of inventions for the disabled that ultimately were helpful to society in general. Likewise, taking the time and effort to make your Web site accessible will make it more usable for everyone.

I became interested in accessibility as a result of my position as Web administrator at the South Carolina State Library (SCSL). As part of its mission, the State Library has a history of providing services directly to Carolinians who have visual or physical limitations. In 2001, our agency became involved in a statewide accessibility project, and I was assigned two large jobs: to make our Web site accessible and to assist in arranging training for Webmasters of South Carolina state agencies. (For the full story, see the October 2001 issue of Computers in Libraries: "How We Renovated Our Library, Physically and Electronically, for Handicapped Patrons.")

While my initial involvement with accessible Web design came about because of my job, as I learned about its principles, I realized that it helps all of us, not just the disabled. I have become convinced that following the principles of accessibility is tightly interwoven with good Web design and usability.

People can have a wide range of functional impairments, affecting their vision, hearing, mobility, and cognitive abilities. Accessible Web design means designing our sites in a manner such that the information they contain is accessible regardless of a person's abilities or disabilities, software, or equipment.

There are two generally accepted standards for accessibility--the recommendations of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and Section 508. The WAL provides 14 guidelines, or general principles of accessible design. These are broken into three priorities-priority one checkpoints that must be satisfied, priority two checkpoints that should be satisfied, and priority three that may be satisfied for maximum accessibility. Each guideline provides several checkpoint definitions that clarify how the guideline applies in typical content development scenarios, technique explanations, and examples. The WAI guidelines do not carry the force of law. Section 508 standards do carry the force of law for federal sites. …

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