Improving Web Accessibility

By Cihan Cobanoglu | September 08, 2008

If you ask the average consumer what their first order of business would be to learn about a new restaurant or research hotel reservations, they'd most certainly head to the Internet. Your company's online presence is exceptionally important, and plays a key role in your potential guests' purchasing decisions. Yet despite the importance of online image, many hotels and restaurants fall short in a key area of website design: general accessibility for all populations.

Understanding accessibility
A website's 'accessibility' specifically refers to web content that is available to all individuals, regardless of any disabilities or environmental constraints. Users may be operating in situations under which they cannot see, hear, or move, or they may have difficulty processing some types of information, reading or understanding text, or may be unable to use a keyboard or a mouse.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, there are about 51.2 million Americans with some level of disability and 32.5 million people with a severe disability. Furthermore, the proportion of people with disabilities grows as the baby boomer generation ages. People between the ages of 45 and 54 have an 11.5 percent chance of developing a disability, and those chances increase dramatically between the ages of 55-64. Almost 54.5 percent of the population over 65 years of age has a disability.

The Internet can offer stimulating opportunities to people with disabilities, while providing independence and freedom. But, if a website offers low accessibility or provides vague information, then technology will be of little help to communicate to users with visual impairment.

Weak access discovered
To evaluate website accessibility, I worked with a graduate student from the University of Delaware, Lina Xiong, to conduct a study of 100 randomly selected hotel and restaurant websites. More than half of all those evaluated could not be viewed successfully by people with disabilities. Most of the hotel websites we analyzed failed the majority of our evaluation parameters; the single largest cause of failure was a lack of alternative text for non-text materials. This result is consistent with previous research, and such failure is relatively easy to rectify. Restaurant websites faired slightly better than hotel websites, though this could be largely attributable to their general simplicity by comparison.

Tips for improvement
Consider following these guidelines for web design to provide universal access to all guests: 

  1. Tap best practices. Become familiar with Section 508 standards, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that works to eliminate barriers in information technology in Federal environments. Although Section 508 only applies to Federal agencies, it offers a comprehensive picture of how to improve information technology accessibility.
  2. Test current sites. Run an online testing tool such as Cynthia Says (www.cynthiasays.com) to determine what accessibility measures are missing, based on Section 508 standards or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0), established by the World Wide Web Consortium.
  3. Look for easy areas to improve. In some cases, simply adding alternative text for non-text materials can greatly enhance accessibility.
  4. Focus on content. Reconsider the balance between 'presentation' and 'usability' of a website; content is ultimately king. Decrease flash-based content or animation elements that may present difficulties in compatibility for assistive technologies or other users with lower versions of necessary viewing software.
  5. Create a second site. Redesigning large, complex websites to be more accessible can be costly and labor intensive. Consider instead creating a 'mirror website' that includes all of the necessary content from the original website, without any elements that may hinder accessibility. Offer a prominent link on the nav bar directing users to the mirror website.
  6. Understand user disabilities. Only through an outside-in approach can web designers develop an accessible website which can better reach business revenue potential and offer enhanced customer interaction.

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