Philly Standards Lecture: Barrier-Free User Experience

As I noted the last time I posted about Philly Standards, I have a “thing” for web design, programming, and development.  A “clean” site not only plays a crucial role in ensuring search engine friendliness, but in user experience as well.  Ask my roommate, I have a pet-peeve for poorly designed and flashy websites that are hard to navigate and read.  But I digress.

This past Tuesday at Ly Michael’s, Philly Standards hosted a presentation by Kel Smith who explained what Section 508 is and why it is important for anybody with a web presence, or marketing a website, get up to speed on what he calls “inclusive design”.  More on that later.

He started the lecture by boldly declaring there are no standards.  He prefaced the remark by saying he knew he’d get a lot of flack for that.  Naturally the World Wide Web Consortium exists to develop specifications, guidelines and tools to ensure web accessibility.  While some of these guidelines seem like no-brainers, there are still millions (billions?) of web sites that don’t adhere to them.  His point is that unless builders and people who fund websites adopt these standards, they may as well not exist. The importance and existence of WCAG shouldn’t be understated.

He went on to explain the 4 design principles (POUR) from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0:

P – Perceivable
O – Operable
U – Understandable
R – Robust

From there he plowed into the importance of Section 508 – a statutory section in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, whose primary purpose is to provide access (“reasonable accommodation”) to electronic and information technology (EIT) for individuals with disabilities.

EIT includes:

  • telecommunication products, such as telephones;
  • information kiosks;
  • transaction machines;
  • World Wide Web sites;
  • multimedia (including videotapes); and
  • office equipment, such as copiers and fax machines.

He went on to cite the landmark class action lawsuit against Target by the National Federation of the Blind. A blind user was awarded a $6m settlement because Target’s website was not accessible to him.  Amazing, huh?  Drop in the bucket for Target, of course.  But this lawsuit brought the issue to light.  Some companies began to worry about it in fear they would get sued, too.

The fact is, in an ever increasingly technical world, we need to develop new standards for ease of use for everybody (“inclusive design”).  There are between 40 million and 50 million Americans with disabilities.  Not to mention, a large aging population with various special needs as well.  A growing proportion of these disabled and aging people are connected online and spending online.  These people often use screen readers (such as JAWS®) and braille keyboards to access the Internet.

Some good practices in accessible web design include:

  • include a Table of Contents if possible
  • specify language
  • use understandable semantic rich elements (such as header tags)
  • include accurate, succinct alt attributes to all images – for example: “Picture of…”
  • write anchor text (on links) so that it makes sense when read out of context
  • separate words so that when spelled out it makes sent – for example: homepage -> home page
  • increase letting on website for people who are color-blind or dyslexic
  • if you install a captcha, ensure it includes audio

These are just some of the things you can do to create a barrier-free user experience for everybody.

Testing software and tools are available that can help make sure the websites you create are accessible.

Cynthia Says Portal
Wave 4.0
FAE (Functional Accessibility Evaluator)
Firefox Accessibility tools

To learn more about barrier-free user experience, web accessibility, and user-centered design, read more at Kel’s blog.  Thanks Kel!


2 thoughts on “Philly Standards Lecture: Barrier-Free User Experience

  1. Thanks for the mention!

    One item of clarification – the $6 million settlement was not awarded to one individual. As a class-action lawsuit, the payment will go to a fund from which members of the California settlement class can make claims. A payment of $20,000 will be made by Target to the California Center for the Blind, Inc. on behalf of Bruce Sexton (the original Plaintiff).

    Full text of settlement and information for claimants can be found at


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