The Web Accessibility Initiative

January, 2004

An article explaining the role of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in promoting accessibility on the Internet.

Reprinted with permission from Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication, Arlington, VA, U.S.A.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the combination of HTML, HTTP, and URL that started the World Wide Web, his intention was to provide access for everyone. "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." But when developers started producing increasingly graphics-laden Web sites, barriers to the Web started to emerge for people with disabilities.

Fortunately, Berners-Lee's intentions were not forgotten. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) works to advance the cause of accessibility on the Web. Its efforts can improve your site's accessibility, which can have real benefits for both you and your Web site users.

What Is the WAI?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hosts the WAI. The WAI partners with government and industry supporters of accessibility to make sure that accessibility practices are considered during the Web design process. The WAI includes a number of working groups, interest groups, and a coordination group that focus on different areas of accessibility as they relate to the Web, and takes a collaborative approach to development. These WAI groups perform the following tasks:

  • Ensuring that Web technologies support accessibility
  • Developing guidelines for accessibility
  • Improving tools to evaluate and repair Web accessibility
  • Coordinating with research and development
  • Developing materials for education and outreach

More information about these groups can be found at

The WAI developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to explain how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities ( Web content refers to what is conveyed to a user through natural language, images, sounds, movies, and animation. The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility. However, following them will also make Web content more available to all users, whatever user agent they are using or whatever constraints they may be facing.

What Does Compliance Mean?

It makes good business sense to plan accessibility into your product design, not just because your users may include persons with functional disabilities, such as impaired vision or restricted mobility, but also because they may include individuals with situational disabilities such as an old browser, a slow Internet connection, or no sound card. Also, because they are aging, the likelihood of disabilities among baby-boomers is increasing.

As a technical communicator, you may be asked to become an accessibility expert overnight. If you live in the United States and your company receives a government contract, then accessibility is mandatory under Section 508, a 1986 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Section 508 was amended in 1992 and again in 1998.) This law, which applies to federal government agencies and to some state government agencies, requires them to ensure that electronic and information technology products and services that they purchase are Section 508 compliant. A company wishing to sell products or services to the government should determine whether its products and services are Section 508 compliant, but the company itself is not obligated to be Section 508 compliant.

Implementing Accessible Design

You can find many completed deliverables on the WAI Resources page at ( to help you get started with your research for implementing accessible design in your Web sites. The documents listed in this section are divided into categories. A partial list of these categories and their associated documents follows:

Introductions— This category includes a "getting started" document for people who are new to Web accessibility, an overview that explains why Web accessibility is important, and a description of the mission of the WAI.

Quick Tips— This document introduces some key concepts of accessible Web design. Quick Tips are available online in thirty languages.

Frequently Asked Questions— This category includes common questions about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG).

Techniques— This category includes a number of documents that provide implementation support for the WCAG, ATAG, and UAAG guidelines and other areas related to Web accessibility. For example, one document provides techniques for satisfying the requirements defined in version 1.0 of the WCAG. Another document provides a detailed technical discussion about applying accessibility to cascading style sheets (CSS).

Training Resources— This section includes an extensive online curriculum that explains and gives many design examples for the WCAG. You can learn from this curriculum or use it to teach on three levels. You can focus on the guidelines alone, you can focus on the guidelines and accompanying checklist points for meeting the guidelines, or you can cover the guidelines, checklist points, and design examples for applying the guidelines to your own work.

Evaluation and Repair Tools— This section provides an evaluation resource suite for evaluating Web sites for accessibility. It includes background information on how to evaluate Web sites for accessibility, a list of evaluation tools, and a template to use for evaluating accessibility.

Policy Links— This category includes links to laws that govern accessibility practices in different countries.

Coding for Accessibility

The W3C has posted tools to help webmasters validate their sites. The HTML validator ( and the cascading style sheet validator ( were designed to help sites conform to markup language standards and thus improve performance and interoperability of browsers. However, conforming to these standards also improves accessibility.

The W3C has also posted Tablin, an "HTML table linearizer." This means that it transforms Web pages coded with tables into logical linear representations that are easy to read with screen readers and other assistive technology for people with vision problems.

A complete checklist of accessibility design issues can be found at A summary appears in the sidebar.

Coding for accessibility not only helps fulfill the intent of the Web's designer, it helps make the Web even more egalitarian. By keeping our Web sites open to everyone, we help make the Web a true marketplace of ideas that enriches the experience of all users.

Quick Tips for Accessible Web Sites

(For complete guidelines and a comprehensive checklist, please visit

  • Images and animations: Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual.
  • Image maps: Use the client-side map and text for hotspots.
  • Multimedia: Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.
  • Hypertext links: Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid "click here."
  • Page organization: Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.
  • Graphs and charts: Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.
  • Scripts, applets, and plug-ins: Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.
  • Frames: Use the noframes element and meaningful titles.
  • Tables: Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize.
  • Check your work: Validate. Use tools, checklist, and guidelines at

Lori Gillen is a member of the Boston-IA board of directors and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication, Boston Chapter. Lori is active with the STC AccessAbility SIG and founded the Boston group of this special interest group. Lori is a technical writer at McKesson Health Solutions, in Newton, Massachusetts, and is a student in the graduate certificate program in Interactive Design at Northeastern University.

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