January 1998


Making Web Pages Universally Accessible

by Sheryl Burgstahler

With access to the Internet, a few tools, and a bit of training, anyone can publish on the World Wide Web. Today, we can be information producers, not just information consumers. But, how many in this new generation of information producers think about the diversity of potential visitors to their sites? A visitor might be:

  1. a 'Net traveler for whom English is a second language;

  2. a student who is deaf;

  3. a home user with a slow modem and the text-based Web browser Lynx;

  4. a businesswoman who has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to read, especially when the screen is cluttered;

  5. someone who, because of a mobility impairment, uses a modified mouse and has difficulty pointing to small objects;

  6. a second grader who enjoys surfing on the 'Net;

  7. a retired scientist who cannot see small characters on the screen; and

  8. a teacher who is blind and uses a screen reader and speech synthesizer that only translate the text presented on the screen.

The varied features of the World Wide Web are attractive to a wide variety of users. Many Internet surfers are unable to view graphics and photos because of visual impairments, hear audio because of hearing impairments, make sense of cluttered pages because of learning disabilities, and select small buttons because of mobility impairments.

Technology can play an important role in increasing the independence, participation, and productivity of people with disabilities. The dramatic growth of adaptive technology makes it possible for anyone to access computers and the Internet. But gaining access is not enough. The potential of the Internet to level the playing field when it comes to information access can only be realized if information publishers employ design features that make their sites accessible to a wide audience, including those using adaptive technology. Unfortunately, few Web publishers consider the great diversity of potential visitors when they design their sites. Rather, they think only of the average visitor.

If "universal design" principles are employed, all visitors to your Web pages can access the content. Universal design means to concentrate on content rather than flashy graphics and audio and to consider the full spectrum of potential users. Make the information presented in documents, menus, graphics, video clips, and other materials accessible to everyone. This paper summarizes simple guidelines you can employ to make your World Wide Web pages easier to use by visitors with a diverse set of characteristics.

Screen Layout

Maintain a simple, standard page layout throughout your site. Buttons, navigational links, and logos should always appear in the same places on each page. A consistent layout will help anyone visiting your site find and access the information you are providing, but, in particular, will benefit people with specific learning disabilities, with visual impairments, and for whom English is a second language.


Similarly, keep your page backgrounds simple and make sure there is adequate contrast between the background and the text. People with low vision or colorblindness, and those using black-and-white monitors may find it difficult to read information at sites with busy backgrounds that obscure text. Choose background, text, and link colors carefully and maintain high contrast. Access your site using a variety of Web browsers and monitors to test your choices.


Make the buttons on your page large enough to be accessed by someone with limited fine motor control using a standard mouse or someone using an alternative input device because of a motor impairment. Larger buttons will make selecting options easier for all visitors, especially those with restricted hand movements.


Use universally recognized HTML elements. HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the standard code used to create Web sites, works with elements that tell Web browser software where to find and how to display information on the screen. Some non-standard elements are not recognized by all browsers. Make sure that a visitor to your Web site is not required to use a specific browser to access the information provided. Avoid formatting elements (such as <BLINK>) that are not supported by all Web browsers. If you follow this design principle, everyone, particularly those who are blind, benefits.


Some visitors to your site cannot see pictures or drawings. This may be because they are blind, because they are using graphical browsers with the feature that loads images turned off, or because they are using slow modems with text-based browsers such as Lynx. Provide alternate text for each graphic so that those who cannot view the image can access the information it provides.

Similarly, include descriptive captions for pictures on your site and transcriptions of manuscripts provided in image format. Word descriptions carefully to provide concise, relevant information for the visitor who will not see the picture or manuscript that is included in the image.

Include a short, descriptive ALT attribute for each graphical feature on a page. The attribute, which works with HTML image tags to give alternative text for graphical features on the page, allows descriptive text to appear on the screen and tell visitors about the appearance and content of the graphic. When sighted persons with graphical browsers access the page, they see the graphic; when blind persons or other users using text-only displays access the page, they can read the alternative text.

Text-based menu alternatives should be provided for image maps to assure that the links embedded in the image maps are accessible to those accessing only the text of the page. Image maps are graphics that contain multiple areas that, when selected with a mouse or other pointer, link you to another Web page or section. The only method of making image maps accessible is to provide a text alternative. Anyone using a browser without graphics capability, those who cannot see images, and users who have turned off loading of graphics all benefit when this guideline is followed.

Link Descriptions

Make links descriptive so that they can be understood out of context. Blind visitors who use screen reader software and speech synthesizers can set their software to read only the links on a page. It's important to them that the text in the links provide enough information when read without surrounding material. For example, "click here" does not provide adequate information for a blind user to determine if this is a link he/she wishes to pursue.


If video clips or sound clips are used at your site, be sure to provide captioning and transcription for visitors who are deaf. For example, if an audio file contains a dialogue or song lyrics, a transcript of the file should be presented on the screen. Also, audio within a video clip may contain information that should be provided in descriptive text form.

Special Features

Most screen readers read from left to right, making the information presented in tables confusing to blind users; for this reason, consider alternatives to tables. Similarly, frames are often impossible to make sense of by blind users; avoid them. Forms and databases can also be difficult to access; when using them, test with a text-based browser to see if they are adequately supported. Applets, plug-ins and other special features often do not employ universal design features. Providing text alternatives to access the information provided by these special programs may be the best access solution. If you cannot make some features accessible to everyone, direct visitors who cannot access the information provided through these features to an electronic mail address for help.


Test your Web pages with a variety of Web browsers. One of the browsers used should be a text-based program such as Lynx. If possible, also examine your pages using browsers on different platforms (e.g., Macintosh, PC and XTerminal) and with color and black-and-white monitors. In addition, test your site for accessibility using "Bobby." Bobby, created at the Center for Applied Special Technology, is an HTML validator program that tests for accessibility and identifies non-standard and incorrect HTML coding. Bobby is located at

Accessibility Note

Post a note prominently on your home page indicating that you are committed to making your pages accessible to everyone and that you are interested in feedback. For example, the DO-IT home page includes the statement "The DO-IT pages form a living document and are regularly updated. We strive to make them universally accessible. You will notice that we minimize the use of graphics and photos, and provide descriptions of them when they are included. Video clips are open captioned, providing access to users who can't hear the audio. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome."

Redundancy, Redundancy, Redundancy

Should I say that one more time? Many potential access problems are avoided if you deliver information in multiple modes. If material is to be conveyed using audio or video files, provide text alternatives. If it is provided in graphical form, make sure a text alternative is available for blind users using voice output and others using text-based browsers. Along with redundancy, consistency and simplicity are keys to accessibility. When more information producers take care to assure that their Web sites adhere to universal design principles, a larger audience of Internet users will be able to make use of the wealth of information resources on the 'Net.

DO-IT Resources

  • A videotape and handout about universal access of Web pages, titled "World Wide Access" is available through DO-IT. A good launching point to find resources for making accessible Web pages is the DO-IT HTML Guideline page at

  • DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. Additional funds for helping make electronic resources accessible to people with disabilities are provided by the Telecommunications Funding Partnership.

  • Contact
    DO-IT University of Washington
    Box 354842
    Seattle, WA 98195
    Voice/TDD (206) 685-DOIT
    FAX (206) 685-4045

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph . D. ( Sheryl Burgstahler is an Assistant Director of Information Systems for Computing & Communications at the University of Washington and directs project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). DO-IT, primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, makes extensive use of adaptive technology, computers, the Internet to help people with disabilities lead more independent and productive lives. DO-IT was showcased at the 1997 Presidents' Summit on volunteerism and has won numerous awards, including the 1995 NII Award in Education and the 1997 President's Award in Mentoring.

Copyright © 1998 by Sheryl Burgstahler. All Rights Reserved.

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