Semantics and Accessibility

Comedian Ralph Harris

Accessibility, usability, readability, and all the other -ability words…these are things we hear all the time and to some extent, understand, some better than others.  Usability has grown in popularity over time as websites and web applications have to be adapted to the growing number of mobile devices and tablets in use today; and of course readability now that more than just your tech-nerd crowd who lacks in background/foreground color matching skills use the web, but what about accessibility?

Accessibility is not something we usually think about when it comes to the web, as for most people, all that is needed is a good internet connection and some device with a browser.   But there are a growing number of people who have some sort of disability who also want and need to access this ever-growing and indispensable resource we call the World Wide Web.  How can they access this in a manner in which they can make the best use of the information?  There are a growing number of web standards and technologies that open the web to the this group of people, a few of which I will mention below:

Image alt attributes, title attributes, and structured content are all ways that have existed since the early web that will allow visually impaired people to access web pages and be able to make good use of them.  Image alt attributes are just a simple text string that allow a description of an image that will be displayed (or read by a screen reader) when an image is not available/cannot be displayed.  Title attributes can be used with links to achieve a similar goal.  Structuring content so that the most important information comes before less important things is a welcome consideration for people who rely on screen readers, so they don’t have to sit and listen to a long list of nav links and other such things every time.

An awesome standard that not only renders internet applications accessible, but also gives them semantics is WAI-ARIA (  This standard allows for attributes that can be added to elements not only to identify what they are (a link that is acting like a button), but state information as well (a link that is acting like a button that is pressed), which not only helps with screen readers and other non-traditional tools used to access the web but actually helps with search and classification of the web on a level that benefits everyone, but that is for another discussion.

SPARQL Protocol and RDF query language ( can go along with ARIA to allow terms to be disambiguated to facilitate finding information.  It is a technology that allows global identifiers in the metadata to allow searching for specific things that would turn up together in a search otherwise. A very basic example of this would be searching for me “Ralph Harris”, and the comedian “Ralph Harris”.  A normal search would turn up us both but RDF query language would allow specific searches for each one of us using additional data in the markup that would allow search engines to disambiguate.  I am of course overly summarizing this and would suggest you go and do your own research on the topic.

All in all, there are a lot of technologies and standards available to allow people with disabilities to access the web and take advantage of its plethora of information.  As time progresses and people are made more aware of this audience, hopefully they will become just as common as <html><body></body></html>.