Is Web Accessibility a Human Right?

Date posted to site, January 28, 2010

The Web is now so tightly integrated into our society that it’s second nature to obtain employment, access education, do commerce, get information, get
entertainment and even build social relationships online. If the Web is now a permanent and integral part of our society, then is denying a group of people
access to much of the Web a form of discrimination and a denial of a human right?

If the Web is unusable …

Who is affected?

People with disabilities are not able to participate in much that is offered on the Web. They are computer users and able to be productive when using desktop
applications thanks to various assistive technologies. Yet when it comes to accessing the Web, they encounter barriers not found in general computer usage.

What is happening?

Web sites are rendered inaccessible in many ways, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • Missing alternative content for images is simply missing content if you are a user who is not able to see images
  • Low contrast combinations of colours can make reading impossible for some users
  • Controls (buttons, pop-ups, calendars, etc.) don’t work for keyboard users who lack the dexterity to use a mouse
  • Web site functions aren’t available if they rely on scripting that does not work with assistive technologies
  • Combinations of factors that make the use of a Web site too frustrating such as ambiguous or missing link texts, incorrect use of headings, poor navigation, semantic markup used for formatting effects, etc.

Why is this happening?

HTML has adequate features to make Web sites accessible. However, these accessibility features are not used or are used incorrectly by the vast majority of Web site creators. Why? Because making Web sites accessible requires Web site creators to perform extra steps. So by skipping these steps, most stakeholders
in Web technology (browser vendors, authoring tool vendors, Web site creators, HTML specification authors and others) have made it easier for one group of people to use the Web at the expense of another group.

A hard question

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms to which all of us are entitled. Some of those rights include the right to work, the right to choose where we work, the right to access education, and the right to participate in culture; all of which are rapidly becoming obtainable through one primary source –
the Web, which is now an integral part of society and daily life. If one group of people is denied access to much of the Web, that therefore constitutes
a denial of those human rights that are exercised via the Web.

If you don’t agree that Web accessibility is a human right, then what is it? Is offering accessibility a personal choice that Web site creators make? If we accept that argument, then making accessible Web sites amounts to no more than a charitable act on the part of individuals. Is that really acceptable?

Should all Web sites be accessible?

If Web site accessibility is a human right, then all Web sites should be accessible (with a few exceptions). If Web sites are open to the public then these Web sites must offer equitable access to everyone who uses them. If a Web site is listed in a publicly accessible search engine, directory or advertisement, that site is actively soliciting public visitors, and therefore should offer equitable access to all its visitors.

The few exceptions include Web sites that are by invitation only, which should be exempt from accessibility requirements. And where there is no practical way to offer equivalent functionality using technology that is accessible, then that also would constitute a valid exception.

A right delayed is a right denied

All stakeholders in Web technology have an obligation to make the Web accessible, yet most of them are doing little to progress Web accessibility. For example, he authors of the next generation of HTML do nothing to make the language itself more accessible. Web authoring tool vendors are very slow in implementing
existing accessibility features. And although Web sites created to specification are more likely to be accessible, browser vendors try to make incorrectly written Web sites work as well as correctly written sites, taking away any incentive to follow specifications.

With each passing day a group of people are deprived of the right to choose their employment, have access to education, and participate in culture, because much of the Web is inaccessible to them. Many stakeholders in Web technology shirk any responsibility in their obligation to make the Web accessible and
instead tell these people to wait for future solutions. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “a right delayed is a right denied”.

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