Undeniably, the web has revolutionised our society. One of the most powerful tools ever created, the internet has helped improve people’s lives in countless ways.

Since the birth of the internet, a range of technologies have been developed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. With specialised hardware and software such as text-to-speech screen readers, text-to-braille devices, touchscreens and features built into web browsers, users can rely on a level of accessibility that was never possible with physical media.

Before the web, people with visual disabilities needed to get hold of braille copies of anything they wanted to read, or simply rely on others to read aloud for them. Now, users have instant access to content in a wide range of formats to suit a number of disabilities.

So the web offers huge opportunities to make content more accessible – and ways to give people with disabilities more independence than ever. But all this technology isn’t enough on its own. For people with disabilities to access the full potential of the internet, web services need to be built with the technology and the users in mind.

Web accessibility seeks to make web content as accessible as possible for people with disabilities. Through the development and implementation of guidelines, tools and techniques, it’s an inclusive concept that removes barriers to web browsing, and maximises the ability of users to participate in the online world – no matter what disabilities they may have.

Why web accessibility is so important

People with disabilities are a large and diverse group that includes:

  • People with visual disabilities such as blindness or visual impairment
  • People with auditory disabilities such as deafness or hearing loss
  • People affected by physical disabilities arising from conditions such as muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and many more
  • People with cognitive disabilities affected by learning difficulties such as dyslexia as well as various other memory and attention problems
  • People affected by photosensitive epilepsy, where strobe or flashing effects can trigger epileptic seizures

These are just a few examples from the huge array of people with disabilities in society. Estimates vary, but most studies find that around 20% of the UK population are affected by some form of disability.

With such a large section of the population affected by disabilities, and the internet becoming ever-more central to our society, equal access and participation is crucial.

In practice, this means that people with disabilities should be free to navigate, interact with and contribute to every aspect of the web, with minimal restrictions. As Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, put it: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 is the latest form of legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities – and discrimination includes making a website or service unavailable due to a user’s disability.

Ensuring a high standard of web accessibility can be a legal requirement for public institutions like schools, universities and government bodies. And on an international level, access to information and communications technologies is recognised as a basic human right by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

How web accessibility benefits everyone

For organisations, there’s always a strong business case for web accessibility. After all, why would you put up barriers that stop large numbers of web users – and potential customers – from accessing your site? As well as demonstrating corporate social responsibility (with the associated PR benefits), web accessibility delivers practical advantages.

Web accessibility regularly overlaps with best practice in the worlds of responsive design, device independence and search engine optimisation (SEO), with more accessible websites performing better in search results and reaching a wider audience. All this makes web accessibility more than worthwhile for any business.

So ultimately, a big part of web accessibility is usability and good design in general. Whether someone has a disability or simply lacks confidence using technology, proper web accessibility makes their online experience more fulfilling.

This means that people with disabilities aren’t the only ones to benefit from web accessibility. The flexibility and convenience of proper web accessibility can help older web users, people with temporary injuries, and users on low-performance hardware or slow internet connections.

Web accessibility also intersects with the “designing for crisis” concept. This is the idea that in crisis situations such as medical emergencies, vital information like the contact details and locations of medical facilities should be fast and simple to access.

Next steps: web accessibility standards, guidelines and tools

With all these benefits in mind, the advantages of improved web accessibility are obvious. What’s less obvious is how to actually implement web accessibility into your projects.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at the top web accessibility guidelines, standards and resources to help you get started – plus the web accessibility testing tools that provide valuable feedback. Be sure to keep up with the blog for more on how to improve the accessibility of your web content.