World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design

Making web pages accessible to and usable by visitors with disabilities

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by Dan Comden and Sheryl Burgstahler

The World Wide Web has rapidly become the dominant Internet tool, combining hypertext and multimedia to provide a network of educational, governmental, and commercial resources. Much of its power comes from the fact that it presents information in a variety of formats, while also organizing that information through hypertext links. Because of the multimedia nature of the web and the poor design of some websites, many Internet users cannot access the full range of resources this revolutionary tool provides. Some visitors:

People use a variety of technologies to access the web. For example, a person who is blind may use a speech output system that reads aloud text presented on the screen. A person with a mobility impairment may be unable to use a mouse and may rely on the keyboard for web browsing. To create resources that can be used by the widest spectrum of potential visitors rather than an idealized "average," web page designers should apply universal design principles. This requires that they consider the needs of individuals with a wide range of disabilities, ages, and native languages.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and 2008 amendments require that U.S. programs and services be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The ADA accessibility requirements apply to Internet resources.

Accessibility Guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops and maintains the protocols used on the web to insure interoperability to promote universal access. The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has proposed guidelines for all web authors. As Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C puts it:

"The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

In 2001, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed accessibility requirements for web pages of federal agencies. The list of accessibility standards provides a good model even for organizations that are not covered entities under this legislation.

Many agencies and organizations have more than one person who develops web content. Building web content that is consistent, accessible, and usable can be a challenge for web development teams. To ensure organization-wide development of accessible web pages, consider adopting standards or guidelines. These may be as complex as constructing a set of guidelines from scratch, or as simple as referring to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or Access Board standards. Disseminate information about the standards to all web page developers in the organization and provide resources, training, and technical support on an ongoing basis.

Getting Started

The following suggestions will help you get started designing accessible web pages. They are based on the WAI guidelines and the Section 508 standards for web content that can be located by referring to the Resources section at the end of this publication.

General Page Design

Designing a well-organized website helps visitors navigate through the information presented.

Graphical and Audio Features

People who are blind cannot view the graphical features of your website. Many people with visual impairments use speech output programs with text-only browsers (such as IBM's Home Page Reader or Lynx) or graphical browsers with the feature that loads a page with the images turned off. Include text alternatives to make the content in graphical features accessible. Described below are guidelines for providing alternative text for various types of visual features.

Special Features

Accessibility Tests

Test your website with a variety of web browsers, and always test your pages with at least one text-based browser and with multi-media browsers with graphics and sound-loading features turned off. This way you will see your web resources from the many perspectives of your users. Also view the resources at your site using a variety of computing platforms, monitor sizes, and screen resolutions. Make sure you can access all of the features of your website with the keyboard alone, simulating the experience of web users who cannot use a mouse. Make use of accessibility testing software such as A-Prompt, Bobby, and WAVE; they will point out elements that could be inaccessible. Then, revise your HTML to make your site accessible.

Additional Resources

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990


The Center for Universal Design in Education

EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information)

Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards (Section 508)

International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet

National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) resources

Trace Research and Development Center

Universal Design: Principles, Process, and Applications

W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM)

World Wide Access Video

A short video, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, introduces accessible web design and may be purchased from DO-IT. You will receive an open-captioned as well as an open-captioned and audio-described version on a DVD. It can also be freely viewed online at Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos for educational, noncommercial purposes as long as the source is acknowledged.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


Much of the content of this publication appeared in the article World Wide Access: Focus on Libraries by Sheryl Burgstahler and Dan Comden in the Journal of Information Technology and Disabilities, 4(1-2), at; it has been modified and reproduced with permission. This publication was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation (award #9800324, HRD-0227995, and HRD-0833504) and the Dole Foundation (TFP-95-113). However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the federal government, and you should not assume their endorsement.

Copyright © 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1997, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.