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Tools and Tips for Accessible Websites

Economic Development departments should regard as inevitable the need to make their websites compliant with accessibility legislation.  Sooner or later such legislation will arrive at their doorsteps, whether in the form of municipal laws or those of federal or state/provincial jurisdictions.  The federal laws are already in place in the United States and Canada.

But what makes a website accessible?  Economic Development departments will need to know so they can plan their compliance initiatives effectively.

The answer is not simple.  It’s not just a matter of enlarging the font or removing some illustrations and replacing them with text, as some organizations appear to believe, judging by their websites. (We have even seen one municipality in the western US that has addressed the issue merely by proclaiming that its website is accessible, though it has no features that would make it so.  That site will never pass an accessibility review.)

The WCAG guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which are generally regarded as the starting point for legislation in North America, call for web content to be accessible not only to people who are blind or have low vision, but to those with disabilities encompassing deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities and photosensitivity.

How can you address all these things?  Start with principles, then set priorities to apply them to your audiences, your marketing strategy and your budget.

The W3C guidelines establish four principles for websites.  To be deemed accessibility compliant, a site must be:

  • Perceivable – Users must be able to perceive the information being presented, by means of one sense or another
  • Operable – Users must be able to operate the interface, meaning they can navigate to desired content and interact with features.  There must be no interaction that a user cannot perform
  • Understandable – The content or operation of a site must not be beyond the understanding of a user
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies

Can you incorporate these requirements into your economic development website using today’s technology, affordably?  Yes, you can.  As mentioned earlier in this series, select content management systems are available with capabilities to automatically generate an accessibility-compliant website as an accompaniment to a main site. Additionally, a variety of tools can be used to assist with meeting the four accessibility principles.

Perceivable Sites

Is investment attraction information about your community accessible on the web to the 20 per cent of people in the Western world who have some kind of reading disability?  If it is, those people are likely to be favorably disposed toward your community because competing sites that are not visually accessible are a nightmare to them.

A primary method to assist people with visual disabilities is to install text reading software.  There should be a “listen” icon on the home page, and every page of your site.  Today’s sophisticated text-to-speech applications make it faster, more convenient and simpler for users to listen to web sites, including mobile sites.

Operable Sites

Operability might be the number 1 accessibility issue because a great many people who have visual or mobility limitations cannot use a mouse.  How, then, can they find information about your community’s investment attractions?

The answer frequently is to use keyboard shortcuts.  An accessibility compliant website will contain a page with written and spoken instructions for how to use the “alt” buttons along the top of the keyboard to accomplish tasks usually carried out with a mouse.

A user can type Alt + F to access the File menu, Alt + E to access the Edit menu, Alt + V to access the View menu, and so on.  Keyboard shortcuts should be a standard accessibility feature of economic development websites, implemented voluntarily before the law comes knocking.

Understandable Sites

This aspect of accessibility is probably the most challenging for webmasters.  It is less easy to meet the needs of someone with a comprehension disability than someone with a visual or hearing disability.  The solution often requires implementation of assistive technologies.

These can include screen readers, screen magnifiers, speech synthesizers, voice recognition software, and user agents such as desktop graphical browsers, text browsers, voice browsers, multimedia players and plug-ins.

Such technologies are probably unfamiliar to most webmasters of economic development sites.  It will take time and resources to investigate whether you will need any of them as part of your accessibility compliance project. It’s just another reason why it is better to begin that project at an early opportunity.

Robust Sites

Your best intentions of implementing an accessible website can be undone if the site crashes or doesn’t work properly.  Your host server and content management system must be up to the task of accommodating the necessary additional applications.  This, too, is part of what accessibility compliance means.

Equally important is that your site must be robust from the user’s point of view.  Situations can arise that you might not anticipate without taking care to understand the needs of a disabled person.  Suppose, for example, that a user with a disability is trying to fill out a form, but the session times-out before the form is completed.  Upon re-authentication, if the data from the user’s session is not restored, he or she will have to start over.  A user who needs extra time to complete the form might never complete it.

Or suppose that a page has moving or scrolling content that cannot be paused and resumed by users.  Someone with low vision or cognitive disabilities will not be able to perceive that content, unless your webmaster has anticipated such a situation in the website design.


Economic development departments, like municipal governments generally, stand at the threshold of a new era in website management.  They will find it necessary, for legal and competitive reasons, to make their sites accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.  The only way to do this will be to rely on technologies.  The only efficient way to plan and implement those technologies will be to begin by applying the four principles of accessibility.

You cannot ensure a good user experience by merely adhering to guidelines or proclaiming that you are.  The secret is to understand the human-web interaction from the point of view of disabled persons.  What characteristics of your site will make it possible, even enjoyable, for a disabled person to seek information from it?  Those economic departments that move early to answer that question, without having to meet an imposed urgent deadline, will enter this new era with a significant head start.

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