You are here: | Articles and Guides | Guidelines for Building an Accessible Web Site

Print version | forum | register for updates | contact   

Guidelines for Building an Accessible Web Site

Photo: Science Centre

Author: James Byrne (
The Making Connections Unit based in Glasgow Caledonian University ( )
First draft January 2000
Second draft February 17th 2000

Who should read these Guidelines?
This document is aimed at two groups of people - firstly people who wish to ensure that any information they publish on the Internet will be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Secondly Web site managers or those who have taken on the task of creating and managing Web pages/Web sites. All parts of the document are relevant to both groups but the former group should gain some insight about the relevant issues by reading the introductory sections up until the start of the guidelines. An understanding of the Guildelines requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hypertext Markup Language ( HTML1).

The contents of the introductory sections are written to be particularly relevant to publicly funded and voluntary sector organisations in the UK who have an obligation to provide information which is accessible to disabled people.

This document is published directly to the World Wide Web and consists of a single page which has been designed to be printed rather than read directly from the screen (although the pictures look better when you read it on the screen!).


This document explains and discusses the rationale and technical requirements for making information published on the World Wide Web available to as wide an audience as possible. A set of guidelines is developed - which if followed - should help any organisation increase the potential audience who can access their information and services. Creating an accessible Web site is not a science - there is no one 'right' way to do it. There are numerous sets of guidelines to be found on the internet outlining what constitutes an inaccessible web site, what characterises an accessible web site and how to get from the former to the latter.

Having said that, there does now seem to be a growing consensus as to what the most important features of an accessible Web site are - and some guidelines explain these better and are more comprehensive than others. Possibly the most complete set of guidelines are those created by the World Web Consortiums (W3c) Web Accessibility Initiative at: These guidelines have been developed over a number of years and have been the outcome of collaboration between Industry, accessibility research centres, government and disability organisations.

About the World Wide Web Consortium [W3C]

The World Wide Web Consortium is the recognised standards organisation of the World Wide Web. It is a Consortium led by Tim Berners-Lee, Director and creator of the World Wide Web, and Jean-François Abramatic the Chairman. It is funded by Member organizations. It is vendor neutral, working with the global community to produce specifications and reference software that is made freely available throughout the world. To date, 390 organizations are Members of the Consortium. For more information see

The Web Accessibility Intitiative Guideline developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3c) are comprehensive, long and extremely detailed - they are also at times quite difficult for the non-technically inclined person to understand. As well as sharing my own experiences of creating accessible Web sites - I will be using and referring to the W3c guidelines frequently, in such a way that I hope makes the material usable and easier to understand.

The guidance provided in this document should be considered as an introduction to creating an accessible Web site rather than an exhaustive review of the topic - which could easily fill a large and heavy book. More information including the full guidelines and technical reference documents can be found on the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Accessibility initiative pages ( and the many other resources both on and off-line. A list of useful Web sites will be provided at the end of this document.

A note about the links to other Web sites

Throughout the document I refer to organisations and articles which I think are relevant to the issue of accessibility and the Internet. It should not be necessary to follow up these links and references to understand the arguments and guidelines I am presenting. I have provided them to 'back-up' my arguments, provide starters for those interested in further reading, and to point to sources for the claims I am making.

A note about the photographs in this document

The photographs are included for two reasons. First - I liked the following phrase by Mike McCarron - "The innaccessible houses of the future are currently being built on the Internet". The physical buildings in the photographs are an analogy to the virtual 'buildings' being built on the Internet'. All the photographs apart from the last are taken from the outside - the last is taken from within. Secondly they break up the text and provide some respite for the eye and mind - making the document easier to read.

Glasgow University Tower

There is no average information consumer

At the heart of the idea of accessibility on the internet is the notion that there is no 'standardised information consumer 'and no standardised device being used to access the information to be found on the internet i.e. everyone is not using the same type of computer, the same type of browser or can be assumed to have the same physical or sensory abilities. Variety is the in fact the 'order of the day' and the devices and ways people use to access that World Wide Web are many and varied.

An example would be a person who cannot see and is using a text only browsers with a refreshable braille display or audio screen reader. Others will not be using a mouse or will be using an early version of a browser, others again may be using a 'Personal Digital Assistant' (PDA) such as a Palm Pilot, or they may be using a mobile phone to download their e-mail and view the web.

Designing an accessible web site is not just about making sure disabled people can access your information - which of course is important - it is about making sure everyone with there favourite Internet enabled device can access and use your information (see The aim is to build a site that is flexible enough to be adapted to the needs of the user.

Often organisations explain to me they have made the text on their Web pages large because they want to ensure that they are accessible - i.e they want to make sure that visually impaired people can read them. This - though well intentioned - is the wrong approach. Consider the following quote from the The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) Web site (

Some people prefer large text, while others can only read smaller text. Most people need a highly contrasting colour scheme, while others can only read yellow text on a black background. To cater for everyone, Web sites should be flexible in design, enabling the individual to adjust the text and colour settings to suit their needs. (RNIB

It is not about trying to 'hard-wire' in accessibility - extra big text might make your page easier to use for a small group of people but it is likely to make it even harder to acccess for many others. The only way to 'hard-wire' in accessibility is to code your pages with standard compliant HTML and not to get in the way of a user who would like to alter the size, colour and layout of the page to suite their own needs.

It seems to be a little know fact - but it is worth remembering - that almost all Web browsers allow the text size, colour and background colour of Web pages to be changed. Try experimenting with the setting in your own browser. Check how your pages look with much larger or smaller text - and even more importantly, check if the design of your page allow these attributes to be altered at all. If they can't be altered ( i.e the designer has tried to force the page to look the same on everybody's screen) then this should alert you to the fact that your pages are not as accessible as they could be.

Another erronious belief I hear again and again is that accessible pages need to be just text - and therefore have to be fairly boring and plain. Let me set the record straight right here - that is absolute rubbish!

Creating an accessible web site does not mean you cannot use images, video, sound, animation etc - rather it is about making this multimedia content accessible to as wide an audience as possible. So if you have a photograph provide alternative text explaining what the photograph shows, if you have video or audio provide captions or a text transcript. In other words provide alternative ways to access the same information.

Why do we need an accessible Web

In two years time it is estimated that 25% of all Western European households will be connected to the Internet and by 2004 almost two thirds of businesses in Europe will have Internet access ( DataMonitor). At the same time as it is growing at an alarming rate the Internet is becoming a mainly graphical and highly ‘design’ oriented medium. This has implications for many of the 5 million disabled people in the UK; in the new ‘digital economy’ many disabled people may be excluded. Attention must be paid to the problems of accessibility on the World Wide Web and other Internet based technologies. The Internet is, and will be used, by local and national government, banks, educational establishments, shops, information providers and indeed in every concievable area of life to deliver information and services .

Currently almost 75% of all Web site traffic is images2. Multi-media rich sites are inaccessible to many disabled people; e.g. a blind or visually impaired individual who use a speech synthesiser cannot make sense of information on the World Wide Web when it is purely graphics based.

The Internet still has the potential to break down many barriers; you don’t have to be able to hear to use E-mail, the Web or Usenet; Web pages or e-mail can be made to talk and a physical impairment need not be a barrier to navigating through the rich source of information to be found on the World Wide Web. However there are aproximately 1.7 million individuls in the UK who are unable to read standard print with ease, 17 million adults with literacy problems and 1 million people with learning difficulties (Informability manual Central Office of Information; Gregory, Wendy 1996 HMSO ISBN 0117020389). The move towards the World Wide Web which is not text based will have an impact on a significant number of these people.

If we are not to end up with a substantial percentage of the countries’ talent being excluded from full participation in the coming ‘digital economy’ we have to highlight and address these issues.

Pressures for Change

As we move towards the 'digital economy', banking, education, communication, shopping and governance will increasingly use, and rely on, the Internet and it's variants. Accessible information and particularly accessible Internet based information is vital for social inclusion and full citizenship for many disabled people. For more on why making the Web accessible is important refer to my short article The Internet and Disabled People - Access Denied? (

In terms of making sure the information you are producing is accessible, organisations - particularly organisations in the public sector - should be aware of the following 'pressures for change':

The Disability Discrimination Act ( and http//

Other relevant Legislation Local authorities and health boards have in recent years been required by legislation to provide information about their services to certain categories of people, including disabled people. They must also provide information about other relevant services of which they are aware. The National Assistance Act 1948, Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Scotland) Act 1972, The Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990

"Disability Rights Commission" which is now up and running and has a Web site at: The aim is to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and "take appropriate steps with a view to encouraging good practice in the treatment of disabled persons."

Guidelines for Government Web sites ( These guidelines are sparse but should be looked at. From the Guidelines, "Sites which comply with the guidelines will be rich in authoritative content, well designed, linked to other sites with relevant government information and accessible by a very wide audience. "

The Scottish Accessible Information Forum (SAIF) ( Set up to take forward the recommendations made by the Scottish Working Group on information Services for Disabled People and Carers in it's final report Enabling Information (1995). ( Recently published the SAIF Standards for Disability Information and Advice Provision in Scotland:

The emergence of the social model of disability and disability led organisations.

Citizen's Charter initiative Launched in 1991 to make public services more answerable to consumers. The right to comprehensive and accurate information about services is an important element of the Citizen's Charter. As part of the Citizen's Charter initiative the Central Office of Information produced The Informability Guide in 1994 to promote good practice in ensuring that information is accessible to as wide an audience as possible, including people with literacy problems, sensory impairment or learning difficulties. The government also published in 1994 The Citizen's Charter and People with Disabilities, a checklist, to be used together with the Informability Guide.

The Governments Social Exclusion Unit and the Scottish Social Exclusion Network (

The new 'eEurope' initiative recently launched by the European Commission which aims to create a socially inclusive information society - and a mandatory requirement for public service internet sites including all government sites to be accessible to blind and partially sighted people. (

The proliferation of new Internet devices (see Those already connected include cell phones, Personal Digital Assistants such as Palm Pilots, televisions, games consoles and pagers.

Internet-enhanced cell phone have been available since early 1999 It is estimated that half of the population of industrialised countries will be carrying wireless phones. ( and

For a more detailed discussed of the issues, problems and pressures for change in relation to the creation of Accessible Web sites refer to my article "This HTML Kills - Thoughts on Web Accessibility' to be found at

"Creating an accessible web site is - after all is said and done - about making sure all internet aware devices can access the information you have put on the web. Whether it be a braille reader machine being used by a disabled person or a business man accessing the web in his car the issues are the same." 'This HTML Kills - Thoughts on Web Accessibility' by Jim Byrne:

In the next section of this I will look at the particular problems of making sure that large Web sites built and maintained in a way that ensures they remain accessible. Given that most of the 'tools of the trade' available to Web designers are not up to the job - this is no easy task.

Hillhead Church

Thoughts on building and maintaining large accessible Web sites

In my opinion you cannot currently build a fully accessible HTML validated Web site without you or the person you have passed the task to knowing how to write HTML - and of course having knowledge of how to create an accessible site. Perhaps this will change in the future; the World Wide Web Consortium have published a set of guidelines for companies creating HTML authoring tools ( I am optimistic that these guidelines will be taken up by the major authoring tools and browser manufacturers - many have already started down the road to conformance.

In general the tools available do not produce accessible Web sites - human intervention is still needed on many occasions. For a further discussion of this and the wider issues of accessibility and the Internet it is worth reading Cynthia Waddel in 'The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation' (

There are numerous ways to create Web pages including: writing HTML by hand, saving Word Processing pages as HTML, creating pages using WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) Editors like FrontPage and using Multi-million dollar web site automation and management tools. The problem with automatically generating your HTML is that you tend not to get accessible Web pages - and lots of editing working has to be done by hand once the site has been created.

If you are building the Web site yourself or if you use one of the specialised Web page development programs I suggest the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Accessibility Guidelines as a good guide to help make your site accessible ( Your choice of WYSWYG Web editor should be be based on whether it can assist you in the creation of accessible pages and whether it lets you edit the resulting HTML.

If you decide to enlist the help of a commercial design agency you should ask them if they have experience of creating accessible Web sites and to give you the addresses of some examples. If their eye's glaze over or if there is a stunned silence on the other end of the phone when you ask this question try somewhere else.

Once you have created you Web site there are many tools you can use to evaluate the accessibility of the resulting pages. The World Wide Web Consortiums Web page: Existing Evaluation and Repair Tools provides a good list of what is available ( Web creation software - assuming they are built in conformance to the guidelines - should automatically include accessibility feature into Web pages.

Help to build accessible pages

Here are some tools that I use:

HTML Tidy: A must have application for any HTML author; cleans up HTML and fixes mistakes and a host of problems and points up some accessibility problems. Has built in support for cleaning up HTML produced by Word 2000 and Word 97. URL:

Bobby Accessibility Checker: Using Bobby will tell give you a good idea of how well your pages conform to the World Wide Web Consortiums Web Accessibility Guidelines. Using ‘Bobby’ is only a start it is not able to point to all your access problems and does not work correctly on sites that use Frames. URL:

Lynx Browser: Always check your pages using a text browser; Lynx is the best.

Betsie is the filter program used by the BBC to create an automatic text-only version of its website. There are other programs that can convert an design based page to text only ‘on the fly’. URL:

It is not just about building HTML pages

In reality if you are building and maintaining a large Web site you need a combination of tools which can help you to automate the process - but still allow you to delve in to hand code when needed. One of the most important issues of running a Web site is not about how you create the HTML but how you design systems that make it as easy as possible to let contributers add, modify and delete the documents they have ownership of, manage the file system etc - and still make the end result accessible. Here is a rather long quote from Philip Greenspun that hints at some of the problems:

Why don't these what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSWYG) HTML editors enable everyone to become a competent Web publisher? They solve the wrong problem. In the early-ish days of the Web, say 1994, it was observed that college undergraduates who were Unix users could build themselves a Web page in about 30 minutes, even if they were English majors who had never taken a programming class. Users of desktop PCs were unable to produce Web pages at all. Software developers set out to solve what they thought was the desktop user's problem: HTML "programming" is too hard to learn.

He goes on,

It turns out that HTML "programming" consists of sticking "<I>" and "</I>" around a word that you want to appear in italics. Secretaries worldwide were successfully using word processors like this all through the 1970s. Had the average person really become so stupid and lazy in the succeeding 20 years that he couldn't learn that "the I tag is for italics; the B tag is for bold"? In Alan Cooper's interesting book on user-interface design, About Face (1995; IDG), he makes the claim that users don't understand the difference between RAM and disk and further, that they don't understand the file system or directory hierarchies. Somehow people struggle along and get a letter printed but they are confused when they close a document and their word processor asks them if they'd like to save their changes. Save them where? Why weren't they saved before? Why is there a "file" menu on a typical program at all? Shouldn't I just be working on a document and be offered the chance to revert to older versions? Building a Web site exposes and exacerbates all of the problems that users have with their computer systems. No longer are they just trying to print out a letter. They have to organize and link together a set of documents. So if you give someone a WYSWYG editor for HTML, he or she will usually just get stuck 30 minutes deeper into the task of building a site.

Site Management

For large sites a specialised Web site management system is essential - by specialised I don't mean built to order I mean a product whose strengths lies in this area. Something which will allow you to design common templates with dynamic elements, some automated HTML, scripting capability, allow you to manage and easily change the directory structure of your site, perhaps allow you to link in with other HTML generating programs.

So I am not saying "if you want to have an accessible Web site you are going to have to built it all by hand". What I am saying is that we need to be aware of the limitations of automated WYSIWYG Web publishing systems. What is needed is a combination of both automated, 'make my life easier' software, and knowledge - of both accessibility issues and Web Publishing technical details.

There is much more to be said about this, but not in this document. For a more detailed discussion it would be worth having a look at Welcome to the `new Web order' by By Jeff Walsh and Matthew Nelson (

University Gardens No. 12

Plan for Change

Jakob Neilson in his book 'Designing Web Usability'' ( and in his 'Alertbox' column on the Web suggests a useful pragmatic approach to making large high traffic sites accessible. In essence he suggests the following:

[ register for updates ]


Last update: Monday, March 3, 2003 at 10:39:33 AM
The Making Connections Unit is based in the School of Law and Social Science in Glasgow Caledonian University.

Copyright 2003 The Making Connections Unit

I use QuicknEasyImage to add photographs to this site.