Web accessibility: an introduction and ethical implications

Publication Date04 May 2010
AuthorCara Peters,David A. Bradbard
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
Web accessibility: an introduction
and ethical implications
Cara Peters and David A. Bradbard
College of Business Administration, Winthrop University,
Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA
Purpose – Web accessibility is the practice of making web sites accessible to people, such as the
disabled, who are using more than just traditional web browsers to access the internet. The purpose of
this paper is twofold: to overview web accessibility and to highlight the ethics of web accessibility
from a managerial perspective.
Design/methodology/approach – To that end, this paper reviews related literature, highlights
relevant public policy, discusses web accessibility from a systems development perspective, and
concludes with a discussion of web accessibility with respect to different ethical theories.
Findings – The findings take the form of a tutorial that highlights how to address web accessibility
projects. The findings also examine web accessibility projects as they relate to well-known ethical
theories. Additionally, the findings also incorporate ethical opinions from web designers who have
completed web accessibility projects in the past.
Originality/value The paper makes several contributions to the existing literatures on web
accessibility and ethics. An important contribution is that the paper is the first tutorial on web
accessibility that also examines the topic through the lens of ethical theories. In addition to the tutorial,
the paper reports on the opinions of web designers who have worked on web accessibility projects in
the past.
Keywords Internet, Ethics
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction
Few people are aware of the term “web accessibility.” In the short-life time of the
web visual aesthetics has been the design goal, rather than equal access. Web
accessibility is the practice of making web sites accessible to people who require
more than just traditional web browsers to access the internet. For example, a
visually impaired user can use a screen reader to translate text and graphics on the
computer screen to an audio format so the user hears the screen content via a speech
synthesizer or sound card. An accessible web site is designed to accommodate a
wider set of ways users can access the site. However, designing a web site with
accessibility not only serves people with disabilities, but also results in a wider set of
benefits for everyone. The purpose of this paper is to introduce web accessibility
and highlight the ethical issues related to managerial decision making for web
accessibility projects.
Consumers with disabilities are the most likely group to be affected by web
accessibility barriers. Acc ording to Lazzaro (2001), approx imately 35 million
Americans and 750 million people in the world have physical, cognitive, or sensory
disabilities. Data from the US Census Bureau (2005) indicate there are approximately
40 million Americans with at least one form of disability. More recent estimates from
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 20 July 2008
Revised 22 July 2009
Accepted 7 January 2010
Journal of Information,
Communication & Ethics in Society
Vol. 8 No. 2, 2010
pp. 206-232
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/14779961011041757
the Institute of Medicine put the American disability population as high as 50 million,
and this figure is expected to double by 2030 (Zwillich, 2007).
According to Wellner (2000), of the total number of disabled Americans,
approximately 40 percent have computers and access the internet. Furthermore, those
disabled consumers who are online purchase similar products and spend equal dollar
amounts compared to their non-disabled consumer counterparts (Guillot, 2006). Thes e
facts are corroborated by a survey of 100 disabled British consumers conducte d by
AbilityNet.org. This organization found disabled consumers use the internet in the
same ways as the non-disabled: searching for information, shopping for products,
accessing banking services, and for a leisure activity (Freedman, 2007a).
The Center for Disease Control identifies four types of disabilities (visual, auditor y,
cognitive, and motor) that are especially relevant to web accessibility. Visual
disabilities include blindness, color blindness, and low vision (i.e. peripheral
constriction or retinal detachment). The latter two disabilities make it harder to read
the information on certain web sites since dark backgrounds, unusual or small fonts,
and unclear images pose problems for people with these two visual disabilities. People
with audio disabilities such as deafness or a hearing impairment are impacted when
web sites use audio files or low quality recordings. People with cognitive impairments
(also called learning disabilities) include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder, and dyslexia as exemplars. Those with cognitive impairments can have
difficulty reading text or lack the full ability to identify links within a web site. Motor
impairments include people with cerebral pal sy, multiple sclerosis, muscular
dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel, broken bones, or other conditions
causing tremors or loss of fine muscle control. People with a motor disability often
have difficulty using their hands to navigate web sites. They may also have age-related
diseases causing disabilities.
People with disabilities can use a variety of assistive technologies to acc ess the web.
Representative examples of assistive technologies for each of the four types of
disabilities are presented in Table I.
Therefore, the objectives of this study are twofold:
(1) to introduce web accessibility, including reviewing-related literature,
highlighting relevant public policy, and discussing how to develop a web
accessible site; and
(2) to describe the ethics of web accessibility from a managerial perspective.
For the second objective, we examine web accessibility from three ethical theories and
describe the results of our conversations with 15 web site authors. The paper concludes
with an overview of the opinions of web designers who have worked on web
accessibility projects in the past. Their opinions are analyzed and reported with respect
to the well-known ethical theories in the literature.
2. Literature review
The literature review is divided into three sections. Section 2.1 presents the legal
mandates relating to web accessibility. Section 2.2 presents a review of empirical
studies relating to web accessibility in the private sector. Section 2.3 describes the
technical specifications behind the legal mandates for web accessibility.

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