Much like physical accessibility which ensures that people with disabilities are able to access the built environment, digital accessibility ensures that people with disabilities are able to access digital content and services autonomously, sometimes with the help of assistive technologies such as Braille keyboard extensions, text-to-speech programmes and switch adapters. Digital accessibility can also cover digital services that improve the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities.
Digital accessibility describes the technical and methodological considerations that need to be factored into all digital products and services to ensure that they are fully inclusive, from content and web interfaces through to software and hardware. Digital accessibility must be embedded as early as possible in the design process.
Following accessibility standards and best practice ensures that millions of people across the world can access digital content and services. In France alone, according to Health Ministry figures (2010), 5 million users have a disability which effects their ability to access digital content and services.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and President of the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium that is responsible for setting standards and protocols for the web, defines the universality of the web accordingly :
“The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, culture, location, or physical or mental ability. […] Access to the Web is now a human right”.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), launched in 1996 by the W3C, gives the following definition:
“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging.”
For a digital object to be considered truly accessible, its structure, content and functionalities must all be equally accessible. Information that is organised in a logical and functional manner will be accessible to all people.
Users are accessing digital content and services in all manner of contexts. Access may prove problematic for many people, for example:
- people who are unable to see, hear or move
- people who cannot read or understand text
- people who cannot use a keyboard or a mouse
Often users may come up against several of these barriers at the same time, to varied extents according to the situation. Elderly people, for example, can suffer from a gradual loss of physical, sensory or cognitive functions.
Assistive technologies can help people with disabilities to access and create content such as digital documents, software and websites. They cover both software programmes and hardware. Here are some examples:
- Zoom functionality built into the browser
- zoom software programmes
- screen readers with text-to-speech and Braille output
- adapted mouse
- keyboard access
- voice recognition software
- switch adapters
- browsing with icons
- voice recognition software
- text transcription services
- sign-language services