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What is an Accessible Web Site?

In order to design and create accessible Web sites it would be useful to define exactly what an accessible Web site actually is. This will provide Web developers with a number of useful design guidelines and constraints.

Most countries cite ‘WCAG AA’ as the legal benchmark in their definition of Web accessibility, the one main exception being the United States which has provided its’ own guidelines, namely Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For example, the European Union (EU) recently passed EU Law Parliament Resolution (2002)0325 regarding the Accessibility of Public Web Sites. This was adopted on 13th June 2002.

In note 31 of the resolution the EU has stressed that, for Web sites to be accessible, it is essential that they are ‘WCAG AA’ compliant. In other words Priority 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) guidelines must be fully implemented. EU legislation is legally binding on UK courts and therefore should be taken as the legal definition of Web Accessibility in the UK. Please seek professional legal advice if you require clarification of the legal situation, both in the UK and elsewhere.

What does 'WCAG AA' or 'Section 508' actually mean? There are numerous working definitions of Web accessibility which attempt to shed some light on the subject.

The Open Training and Education Network, the largest provider of distance education and training in Australia, defines an accessible Web site as one in which ‘all users can easily enter and navigate the site, access all of the information, and use all the interactive features provided’.

Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act 1973 states that a Web site is accessible when ‘individuals with disabilities can access and use them as effectively as people who don’t have disabilities’.

The Making Connections Unit, based in Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, consider four definitions although they actually recommend number 4. An Accessible Web site is one that will be: -

  1. accessible to everyone
  2. accessible to the intended audience - though perhaps not accessible to other groups
  3. accessible to disabled people
  4. accessible to machines first, and people second.

The definition with perhaps the most authority was written by Chuck Letourneau, the man who co-chaired the working group which developed the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guideline Recommendation 1.0, the de facto international standard for the design of accessible Web sites, and also co-authored the online training Curriculum for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0.

Letourneau describes Web accessibility thus: - ‘anyone using any kind of Web browsing technology must be able to visit any site and get a full and complete understanding of the information contained there, as well as have the full and complete ability to interact with the site’.

We will consider a number of key terms derived from Letourneau's definition of Web accessibility.


‘ Anyone’ means every person regardless of their sex, race, age, nationality or ability - from people having the full range of visual, aural, physical and cognitive skills and abilities to those who are limited in one, or more, of them.

‘Any Web Browsing Technology’

Evolt lists more than 110 different Web browsers, many with numerous versions. This figure includes text-only browsers such as Lynx, speech browsers such as the IBM Homepage Reader and the Cast E-Reader, as well as the more popular browsers such as Internet Explorer, Netscape and Opera.

Web pages can also be viewed by various other devices including screen readers such as Dolphin Supernova, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s), Java and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones, Web and interactive TV, and there is even an Internet fridge.

To comply with Letourneau's accessible Web site definition, pages should be viewable on all of these devices.

‘Any Site’

‘Any site’ means literally any and all sites.

Some Web developers argue that their site has been created for a specific group of people and therefore it is not necessary for it to be accessible . This argument fails on three counts, not counting any legal ramifications.

  1. any member of the intended audience may become disabled at a future time
  2. disabled users wishing to join this selected group are prevented from doing so
  3. disabled users who may be interested in the subject matter are prevented from accessing the information.

‘Full and Complete Understanding’

There are approximately 6,800 spoken languages with a further 41,000 distinct dialects. The content of the vast majority of Web sites is written in just one language - English.

For many English is not their first language yet, to comply with Letourneau's definition of Web accessibility, all Web pages must be fully and completely understandable to them.

Some sites now use automatic language translation programs. For example, Google now offer their search engine Web site in 53 languages and users can set their user interface preference in one of 88 different languages. Google also offer a Web page translation service in 12 languages. Unfortunately the resulting translations are not always totally accurate and can be confusing.

Even assuming a visitor is viewing a page written in their native language there is no guarantee that full understanding will follow. For example, many academics tend to write using lots of jargon. The words may be English but the concepts can be difficult to follow. Web page authors must ensure that their content is as understandable as possible.

‘Full and Complete Ability to Interact’

Many Web pages include elements which the user is expected to interact with. This could include elements such as an online quiz, an application form or a drag and drop exercise. All users should be able to fully complete these activities.

For example, a drag and drop exercise may involve the user dragging various items from one side of the computer screen and placing them in selected locations in another part of the screen. This assumes that the user can actually see the screen and can use a mouse. In order to comply with disability legislation the exercise must be created so that a visually or physically disabled user can complete it using alternative methods.

Is it possible to comply with Letourneau's definition?

Is it really possible to create a site that anyone can use using any kind of Web browsing technology and get a full and complete understanding of the site? In my opinion, the answer is no. There are simply too many variables.

For example, there are 41,000 different languages and more than 110 different Internet browsers. Are we seriously expecting Web developers to create 41,000 different versions of every page and to then test those pages in every conceivable browser at every conceivable screen resolution? If we add another variable, the numbers lose meaning. For example, it is impossible to estimate the number of different disabilities that people may have and some people suffer from multiple disabilities.

The implications are that any one individual could sue an organisation because they could not access a particular Web site despite the best efforts of the Web developer.

In my opinion, the Web developer has a better chance of complying with disability legislation if they take a different approach to the problem. The clue to the solution lies in the fourth definition of Web accessibility put forward by the Making Connections Unit, namely, that an accessible Web site is one which is ‘accessible to machines first, and people second’.

The one thing that all Internet users have in common is that they must use some form of Web browser, whether that be an old version of Netscape, a PDA, or the latest Java enabled telephone. If Web pages could be constructed in such a way that they would work on all browsers, the Web developer can reduce the variables considerably.

The answer lies in coding pages in XHTML using a strict DTD. Strict XHTML is intended to work on all browsers and is fully backwards, and forwards, compatible. Strict XHTML does not allow deprecated tags or elements. Pages must be marked-up correctly resulting in ‘well formed’ documents. The latest Web browsing technologies require documents to be well formed because they cannot interpret badly marked-up documents - they don't have the processing power. XHTML forces you to code "well-formed" documents which work in all browsers and are backwards compatible.


Almost by definition a Web page which is validated to XHTML 1.0 Strict will display correctly on any and all Web browsers. If Web pages are coded using XHTML, in conjunction with CSS, the user can format the Web pages to suit their own preferences. The Web developer therefore need only worry about the actual page content. This approach must give the Web developer a fighting chance in their quest to create accessible Web pages.

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