Published on June 5, 2012

Brenda Huettner provides us with the basics for making our web sites accessible in this training podcast. Huettner is an STC Fellow, a Senior IEEE Member, and the author of a number of informative books, including most recently Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools. [Script Available]


Podcast Script

Hi, this is Brenda Huettner for the IEEE Professional Communication Society. I’m going to talk today about Web Accessibility Basics.

Whenever people or companies post information on the World Wide Web, they post it for other people to read. A lot of the time, they want to reach lots of people, to have many people reading all their content. One way to ensure that content gets to as many people as possible is to ensure that the web pages are accessible. In many countries, this isn’t just good for business, it’s also mandated by law (1). Online content (or goods or services) must be available to everyone under equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws.  For example, a class-action suit is currently underway in the United States on behalf of the National Federation for the Blind against the Target department store because their online store offered values that could not be accessed by screen reader software.(2)

So what is Web Accessibility? According to the W3C (that’s the World Wide Web Consortium) WAI (that’s Web Accessibility Initiative), “Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.” There are millions of people with disabilities (like blindness or deafness or mobility issues) as well as many millions more who benefit from accessible sites. Some people may have temporary disabilities like broken bones, or reduced capacity because of environmental conditions like low visibility or too much noise. An accessible site lets each person  customize the way each  page works so that it accommodates whatever needs that person may have.

As with any other technology project, ensuring that your web site is accessible is easier if you plan for it from the beginning rather than trying to go back and “fix” pages later.  Also, there will always be some components out of your control. Accessible content is just part of the equation. In addition to the issues like available browser functionality and display device limitations, anything you create also needs to work with various assistive technologies like screen readers or audio processing.

One good place to start in developing accessible content is with the “Quick Tips” based on the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (3).  Many of these Tips relate to the use of screen readers for people with visual issues, and are very easy to implement. Additional implementation guidance, including explanations and detailed examples, is available on the W3C site.

So what are these 10 Basic Quick Tips?

  1. Use the alt attribute to describe the function of all visuals such as graphics and animations. You don’t necessarily have to describe the entire graphic, just describe the purpose. For example, a logo alt tag can just say “Company xyz logo” – it doesn’t have to describe the colors and font.
  2. For hotspots or image maps, use a client-side map (not server side), giving the client more control over how the page is displayed.
  3. If your site has multimedia, make sure that you provide both visual and audio versions. For example, create captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.  Don’t get carried away with this, though – if you have a video, you should create an audio file that describes it, but you may not need to then provide a transcript of that audio file since you started with the video version.  
  4. Use text that makes sense when read out of context for hyperlinks. For example, avoid a hyperlink that simply says “click here.”
  5. Use consistent structure for headings and lists. A good way to do this is to use CSS for layout and style where possible rather than modifying the style of individual words or phrases.
  6. Not everyone can see graphs and charts, so you need to either summarize the content in the page text, or use the longdesc attribute.   
  7. Active features, such as scripts and plug-ins, may not work with all systems or assistive devices. You should always provide alternatives, such as a link to another page that contains the same information in a non-active way.    
  8. Frames will be read by screen reader software in the order in which they appear in the code. This can make understanding content very difficult, particularly when frames are used for layout only. Use the noframes element and meaningful titles for each frame.
  9. Like frames, tables are also read in a linear way. Summarize your tables, and make sure you label all the rows and columns.
  10. Validate your pages by reviewing available guidelines. There are several sets of guidelines available for free online. W3C WAI 1.0 guidelines are stable and available online, as is a Draft version of release 2.0 (4). Another good set of guidelines is published by the U.S. Federal Information Technology Accessibility Initiative, commonly referred to as “Section 508” (5)  Also from the U.S. government, there is an online set of research-based guidelines (6), where they identify different elements in terms of importance and strength of evidence supporting each one. If you want to automate some of the validation processes, there are a number of free online sites like Watchfire WebXACT (7) and Cynthia Says (8), or you can purchase validation software packages. Remember that even with software tools and validators, you’ll still need a person who is familiar with current guidelines to review the results.

These 10 Quick Tips are available from W3C as a free hard-copy business-card-size reference in 11 languages, with online versions in over 40 languages.

A transcript of this podcast (in keeping with our content), is available from the PCS Web site. The transcript includes the full list of resources mentioned in the podcast, including URLS.

This is Brenda Huettner for the IEEE Professional Communication Society. Thank you for listening!


(1) W3C WAI compilation of accessibility laws and policies around the world,
(2) News story: “Blind group, Target still at odds over Web access”
(3) W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines, Release 1.0 (May 1999),
(4) W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines, Release 2 Working Draft,
(5) U.S. Federal Information Technology Accessibility Initiative (FITAI)
(6) Watchfire WebXAct free, online accessibility validator (was “Bobby”)
(7) HiSoftware Company “Cynthia Says” portal,
(8) U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Research-based Guidelines, especially Chapter 3, Accessibility
(9) STC AccessAbility SIG,