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Web Accessibility

Posted on Aug 23, 2012

As with most things that we use on a daily basis, it seems to be the case that we take the Internet for granted and fail to appreciate the variety and complexity that makes up the Web. Consider the number of web browsers available for use. Some of the most common browsers include Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari. Then think about the millions who access the Internet from a mobile device, such as a phone or a tablet. If you have used a combination of the previously mentioned technologies and software, you have probably noticed that websites can look different, depending upon whether or not you are viewing such a given website through Firefox, Internet Explorer, your phone, or a tablet computer. Each technology interprets the information that makes up the Internet a little bit differently, and in many cases, some technologies will not work across a variety of browsers.

In Accessibility and Universal Design, author Mary Lou Santovec shows how the lack of a universal standard for web design can hurt all Internet users, and in particular, individuals with disabilities who rely on various technologies to allow them to access a technology that we so often take for granted.

Frequent users of the Internet have probably been told at some point to use a specific browser because it is the “best” one for a certain service. The fact that there are multiple web browsers available and widely-accepted standards are lacking means that a typical internet user might struggle at times to access content. This is even truer for individuals with disabilities, as the ability to implement technologies that can render websites accessible end up being hit-or-miss.

Ms. Santovec writes that “the premise of authoring tools and browsers these days is that they work in a graphically based medium. Problems occur when that browser won’t support certain technologies.” It is important to remember that all content on the internet is essentially plaintext content with some special codes that tell browsers how to graphically render the content. The emphasis on making websites graphically appealing has resulted in a fusion of content and styling, which has resulted in problems with making websites accessible. The solution, Ms. Santovec tells us, is to “separate structure from style through the use of universal design,” where universal design is “the separation of content from styling and the use of structural markup.”

For those interested in designing accessible websites, Ms. Santovec suggests that a key step in the production of accessible websites is to identify the correct technology for accessible design. If a website is constructed with technology that does not enable accessibility, it can be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to make the website accessible. Programs like “Illinois Accessible Web Publishing for Microsoft Office,” developed at the University of Illinois, are good options for accessible web development because these programs are tailored to support all browsers and to make content accessible so that anyone, including individuals with disabilities, can access it.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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