Accessibility is basically the effort to make websites as usable as possible for people with disabilities. This involves the creation of software and hardware that enables people with various disabilities to use computers and the Web. It also means addressing accessibility concerns in the design of HTML as a markup language and efforts on the part of web designers to incorporate accessibility into their websites. When a person with impaired vision uses a screen reader to visit a website, there are things the site's author can do to make that experience as rich and fulfilling as possible given the user's disability.
Common Myths Regarding Accessibility
Historically, there has been some resistance among web designers toward building websites in an accessible manner. This resistance has arisen not due to a wish to discriminate against people who might benefit from accessible design, but rather from a fear that accessibility will limit designers' options in how they create their sites. There's also the fact that accessibility seems like it will add additional work, and most people have too much to do already.
For a long time, many people thought that accessible was a code word for all text. It was believed that adding accessibility meant putting all of your content in a single column running straight down the page, and avoiding the bells and whistles that many people believe are necessary for an attractive website. The fact is that this couldn't be further from the truth. Although some common techniques can interfere with accessibility, that doesn't mean that you must remove any images, sounds, or multimedia from your website. Nor does it dictate that your layout be simplified.
The demand that accessibility places on designers is that they write clean, standardscompliant markup, take advantage of HTML features that improve accessibility, and that they use tags as they are intended to be used in the specification rather than based on how they make your pages look in the browser. The best example here is tables. At one time, nearly all websites used tables not only for showing things like tables of statistics, but also for controlling the layout of entire pages. These types of approaches run counter to how HTML was intended to be used, and make things much more difficult for users with alternative browsers.
Needless to say, to continue to use complex layouts in an accessible world, you have to upgrade to current techniquesin other words, create your layouts using cascading style sheets (CSS). Just as this approach provides cutting-edge look and feel in the latest browsers and yet gracefully degrades to still display information adequately in older browsers, it provides the same benefits in alternative browsers. Because the markup is so simple and is properly used when you use CSS to handle layout, alternative browsers for the disabled can handle the markup just fine. That's not the case when you use eight levels of nested tables to make your page look the way you want it to.
The other common misapprehension with regard to accessibility is that it will require a lot of extra work on your part. The fact is that it does require some extra workcreating your pages so that they take advantage of accessibility features in HTML is more work than leaving them out. However, in many cases, coding for accessibility will help all of your users, not just those using alternative browsers.
Section 508 is a government regulation specifying that United States federal government agencies must provide access for all users, including those with disabilities, to electronic and information technology resources. It requires that federal agencies consider the needs of disabled users when they spend money on computer equipment or other computer resources. What this boils down to is that federal websites must be designed in an accessible fashion.
Not only did Section 508 change the rules of the game for many web designers (anyone involved with federal websites), but it also raised the profile of accessibility in general.
Thanks in part to the fact that people didn't really understand the implications of Section 508 at first, people started thinking a lot about accessibility and what it meant for the Web.
For more information on Section 508, see http://www.section508.gov/.