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Just as computers vary by operating system, processor speed, screen size, memory, and networking abilities, users vary in ways both expected and unexpected. Some differences that typically come to mind are language, gender, age, cultures, preferences, and interests. But some other differences that also need to be addressed by the software and web development community are skills, ability levels, and constraints under which users may be operating. Designing for diversity not only increases the number of people able to access your software or website but also increases their level of involvement with it. Barrier-free design is beneficial for all users. Designing for universal access is not only good social practice, but in general, it is good business practice.

Who is affected by accessibility?

1 in 5 people in the United States has some kind of disability, and an estimated 30 million people are impacted by inaccessible computer and software design. The number of people with disabilities is only increasing, as it has increased 25% in the last decade, especially among those 50 years old and above. Among the 31 million seniors aged 65 and above, 16 million reported some level of disability (Census Brief 97-5). But accessibility actually affects a much larger percentage of the population, as many people who do not have permanent disabilities have temporary conditions that can affect the way they operate for a period of time. Beyond that, the very young and the very old can also benefit from more accessible design. With this in mind, accessibility in website design should really be thought of as part of universal design.

The Internet and accessibility

The Internet has the potential to broaden the lives and increase the independence of people with disabilities. For people who can be physically as well as socially isolated, access to the Internet can offer information about social interaction, cultural activities, employment opportunities, and consumer goods. But, as statistics demonstrate, not many people with disabilities are able to take advantage of these possibilities, in large part because their needs have not been addressed by the web design community.

In 1996, the Department of Justice determined that the Americans with Disabilities Act should apply to Internet web pages. The Department of Justice is backing lawsuits filed across the country against websites that do not conform to Title II and Title III of the ADA. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 also includes legislation to enforce standards in converging technology, wireless communications, and emerging technology. And beginning in June 2001, all new federal websites must conform to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Who’s interested in accessibility?

The legal ramifications, however, are not the only reasons for compliance with accessibility standards. There are many market sectors that are interested in sites that conform to accessibility standards, such as:

  • Government
  • Education
  • Libraries
  • News groups and online periodicals
  • Public utilities and transportation
  • Hospitals
  • Banking, bill payment

Who benefits from accessibility?

The public sector is not the only area that benefits from more accessible websites. Any business that wants a larger market share should be interested in making their websites more accessible.

Many of the issues raised by advocates of accessibility are addressed by the “universal design” approach. Universal design calls for developing products that accommodate the broadest range of users regardless of age or ability. It calls for design that is usable for everyone without needing special alterations or adaptations for accessibility.

The benefits of universal design in websites extend beyond the elderly or disabled populations. Universal design also addresses many of the issues that arise in internationalization, which is becoming increasingly important in today’s marketplace. Some of the key elements to universal access are: providing for interoperability with many applications; providing accessibility to the disabled; and providing customization and localization features for people from different countries and cultures.

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