Posted December 14, 2009 10:13 am by with 4 comments

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If you do not have some sort of disability like impaired sight or hearing the idea of web accessibility is something that you likely don’t consider. I didn’t. I don’t think that makes any of us bad people but considering the time of year it may give us some pause to count our blessings.

Apparently, the one group that needs to be thinking about the issue more than most are web designers and developers. If the article from cnet is any indication it appears that that these folks are thinking about more on the front-end rather than being reminded and having to retro-fit sites later. The cnet article draws attention to Yahoo’s efforts in this arena in particular.

Yahoo’s Victor Tsaran knows how much time Web designers spend agonizing over color and font-width choices when laying out an application. So when he started Yahoo’s accessibility push two years ago, he had a tough time arousing sympathy for engineers grousing about how much extra time was needed to create accessibility features.

Fortunately for Tsaran, Yahoo’s accessibility manager, he’s running into that problem less and less. Web designers are starting to take accessibility as seriously as button placement or heading layout when they develop their products, improving the Web experience not only for people like Tsaran–who lost his sight at the age of five–but for Web users in general.

While not quite yet ubiquitous the idea of web accessibility is important and will continue to be so moving forward. More large companies are acting on their increased awareness according to the folks at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). YouTube has added captioning to its capabilities in response to the need. Honestly, until I read this article I was not aware how great that need actually is.

There are about 60 million people in the U.S. who can’t use a computer to get on the Internet in the normal fashion, said Yahoo’s Alan Brightman, senior policy director of special communities. For those people, a mix of screen reader software, keyboards with special buttons, and even motion-sensing Web cameras must take the place of the mouse and QWERTY keyboard.

That can cause problems for Web designers who rely too heavily on mouse navigation, or who design pages with special multimedia whiz-bang effects that look cool only to the people that can see them. “There can be an assumption of homogeneity on the Web,” said Naomi Bilodeau, technical program manager for Google.

Users of screen readers–software that essentially reads out loud a description of text, links, and buttons on a page–are confounded the most by Captchas and Flash Web pages, according to a recent survey of screen-reader users conducted by WebAIM.

60 million people? That is 1 in 5 Americans cannot experience the web without the assistance of some form of accessibility enhancement. I had no idea. The chart below gives a general idea about how people see the progress being made.

Web Access Progress

So as the web roars forward with HTML5 standards being debated and more and more advances there is a reason beside just fairness that should make businesses stand up and take notice of web accessibility concerns: money. It is estimated that there is $220 billion in discretionary spending available to disabled people.

So where are you with accessibility issues for your site? Have you given them consideration? Now many may find this next question as a way to rile up some folks. If that’s the case then so be it. Consider this: In the current day and age of more and more aggressive government regulation would you be prepared both operationally and financially to make the changes to your website that could be a mandate? It’s already a requirement to do work with the government.

And in order to do business with the U.S. government, companies must comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which insists that electronic and information technology products sold to government agencies be designed with disabled employees in mind, and that government services produced by contractors consider disabled citizens in equal measure.

Are you ready?