An accessible web-site can be used by anyone regardless of their ability. In reality it's almost impossible to cater for everyone, however large groups of people exist with common difficulties and for whom common technical solutions are available. Individuals with a visual impairment should be able to make use of a 'screen readers', a technology that literally reads a page and converts it's content to speech. For those that find the use of a mouse difficult, navigation will be possible via keyboard (or equivalent) short cuts.
Why is this such a big issue? Shouldn't technology 'just do that'?
Arguably - yes. In practice though the web was built by people with good eyesight, with good hand-eye coordination, good colour vision and who had a specific task in mind - communicating with their colleagues. From that starting point, like so many successful ideas, the technology simply evolved. It was never intended to be the global communications tool it has become.
By the time the issue of accessibility was raised it was too late to change the foundations - there were just too many web-sites out there to go back and change the rules.
A number of initiatives have been undertaken to improve the core technologies - always hampered by compatibility issues. Appearance has been separated from content through style-sheets. Unfortunately the real issue of semantics - or meaning of the elements on a web-page have never been addressed.
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Instead existing features have been overloaded in order to aid accessibility through a set of loose guidelines. Those features that make accessible designs difficult have been deprecated. Optional facilities do not however mean an accessible site. Many designers may well be ignorant of their existence or how they should be used and most able bodied clients are none the wiser.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), an international effort to improve accessibility of web-sites, has developed a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the first version of which was published in 1999, with a second version due to be published imminently. The guidelines define three levels of accessibility: A, AA and AAA. Conforming to each of these levels is determined by reference to a set of 'guidelines' each of which defines a number of 'checkpoints'. The guidelines are just that and while they reference HTML (the most common web technology) they aim to be technology agnostic - they apply equally to HTML and to Flash, PDF and other format. They do not tell you which feature of a technology you should use!
To bridge the gap between the WGAC guidelines and the reality faced by a web developer a number of attempts have been made to lay down rules for specific technologies (interpreting the WGAC for a specific environment).
Tools have been developed that take the WCAG in conjunction with specific technology rules to automatically validate a sites accessibility and conformance. These are however limited by the vagueness of the underlying standards. It is often not possible, for example, to determine whether a table is simply being used to represent a visual grid (frowned on) - or to show tabular information. Whether a 'list' is actually a list - or actually a page menu. The semantic markup of HTML does not offer the ability to identify such common items as a page menu. Confusion arises because many of these tools use WGAC guidelines in conjunction with other guidelines, many of which conflict with each other about the 'right' way to go. The result is that each tool will fail or pass a site depending on it's own rules - pick one tool and you pass, another and you fail.
In summary, almost a decade after the release of the WGAC there is no 'right' way to develop an accessible web-site. The automated tools that exist are not a reliable means of measuring whether your site is accessible. There is, in short, no substitute for the human element - a web designer that places a priority on accessibility, that has read and understood the spirit of the accessibility guidelines and that can employ both technical expertise and common sense in the application of those guidelines.
If you'd like to discuss the accessibility of your web-site with people that understand the issues then please get in touch.