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Diversity of Web Users
[DRAFT] How People with Disabilities Use the Web

Editors Draft: $Date: 2011/04/08 09:06:22 $ [changelog]
Status: This document is an in-progress draft and should not be referenced or quoted under any circumstances. Please send comments to wai-eo-editors@w3.org (a publicly archived list).
The current posted version of this document is available from http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/people-use-web/.


This page explores the wide range of diversity of people and abilities, and highlights some of the types of web accessibility barriers that people commonly encounter from poorly designed websites and web tools.

Note: This page is illustrative and is not intended to be an exhaustive listing of all disabilities and barriers.

On this page

Diversity of abilities

There are many reasons why people may be experiencing varying degrees of auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities. For instance, some may have disabilities from birth, an illness, disease, or accident, or they may develop impairments with age. Some may not consider themselves to have disabilities even if they do experience such functional limitations.

More about diversity of abilities

Each individual is unique. People have diverse abilities, skills, tools, preferences, and expectations that can impact how they use the Web. For instance, consider the following aspects:

Websites and web tools that are designed for people with a broad range of abilities benefit everyone, including people without disabilities. It is therefore important to consider the broad diversity of functional needs rather than to categorize people according to medical classifications.

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Auditory disabilities range from mild or moderate hearing impairments in one or both ears ("hard of hearing"), to substantial and uncorrectable impairment of hearing in both ears ("deafness"). Some people with auditory disabilities can hear sounds but sometimes not sufficiently to understand all speech, especially when there is background noise. This includes people using hearing aids or other approaches to improve the sound.

More about auditory disabilities

While the rapid increase of multimedia on the Web provides many new opportunities for people with auditory disabilities, it also poses challenges when content is not designed to be accessible. For instance, while video content can be used to communicate information visually, audio content needs to have alternatives, such as transcripts and captions, so that it is accessible for people with auditory disabilities.

To use the Web effectively, people with auditory disabilities need:

For some people with auditory disabilities, sign language is the first language and they may not read a written language fluently. Providing important information in sign language and using simpler text that is supplemented by images, graphs, and other illustrations help make web content more understandable to many. However, it is important to remember that not all people with auditory disabilities know sign language.

Examples of auditory disabilities

Examples of barriers for people with auditory disabilities

Sections related to auditory disabilities

Stories of web users:

Diversity in web use:

Accessibility principles:

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Cognitive and neurological

Cognitive and neurological disabilities involve disorders of any part of the nervous system, including the brain and the peripheral nervous system. This can impact how well people hear, move, see, speak, and understand information. Cognitive and neurological disabilities do not necessarily affect the intelligence of a person.

More about cognitive and neurological disabilities

Computer technologies and the Web provide many opportunities for people with cognitive and neurological disabilities to interact with content and to process information in ways that are more usable to them. For instance, people can navigate web content using different strategies, access information in text, audio, or other formats, and change the presentation of the content according to their individual needs or preferences.

Depending on the particular needs of an individual, people with cognitive and neurological disabilities need:

People with cognitive and neurological disabilities use different types of web browsing methods, depending on their particular needs. For instance, some people use text-to-speech software to hear the information while reading it visually, or use captions to read the information while hearing it. Some people use tools that resize text and spacing, and customize colors to assist reading, and grammar and spelling tools to assist writing. For these web browsing methods to work, developers need to consider web accessibility requirements which are often shared by people with hearing, physical, speech, or visual disabilities.

Examples of cognitive and neurological disabilities

Examples of barriers for people with cognitive and neurological disabilities

Sections related to cognitive and neurological disabilities

Stories of web users:

Diversity in web use:

Accessibility principles:

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Physical disabilities (sometimes called "motor disabilities") include weakness, limitations of muscular control (such as involuntary movements including tremors, lack of coordination, or paralysis), limitations of sensation, joint problems (such as arthritis), pain that impedes movement, or missing limbs.

More about physical disabilities

To use the Web, people with physical disabilities often use specialized hardware and software such as:

People with physical disabilities may be using a mouse or mouse-like device only, or keyboard or keyboard-like device only to operate the computer. People with physical disabilities need full keyboard support for all functionality provided on a web page. They may need more time to type, click, or carry out other interaction, and they may type single keystrokes in sequence rather than typing simultaneous keystrokes ("chording") to activate commands. This includes commands for special characters, shortcut keys, or to active menu items.

People with physical disabilities often have trouble clicking small areas and are more likely to make mistakes in typing or clicking. Providing large clickable areas, enough time to complete tasks, and error correction options for forms are important design aspects. Other important design aspects include providing visible indicators of the current focus, and mechanisms to skip over blocks, such as over page headers or navigation bars. Many of these requirements are shared by people with cognitive, neurological, and visual disabilities.

Examples of physical disabilities

Examples of barriers for people with physical disabilities

Sections related to physical disabilities

Stories of web users:

Diversity in web use:

Accessibility principles:

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Speech disabilities include difficulty producing speech that is recognizable by others or by voice recognition software. For instance, the loudness or clarity of someone's voice might be difficult to understand.

More about speech disabilities

People with speech disabilities encounter barriers with voice-based services, such as automated web-based hotlines and web applications that are operated using voice commands. To use services that rely on voice, people with speech disabilities need alternative modes for interaction such as a text-based chat to interact with hotline representatives or keyboard commands to operate web applications. Also, websites that provide telephone numbers as the only means of communicating with an organizations pose barriers for people with speech disabilities. Alternative means of communication include e-mail and feedback forms.

Examples of speech disabilities

Examples of barriers for people with speech disabilities

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Visual disabilities range from mild or moderate vision impairments in one or both eyes ("low vision" or "partial sight"), to substantial and uncorrectable loss of vision in both eyes ("blindness"). Some people have reduced or lack of sensitivity to certain colors ("color blindness"), or increased sensitivity towards excessive brightness in colors. These variations in perception of colors and brightness can be independent of the visual acuity.

More about visual disabilities

People with visual disabilities typically rely on changing the presentation of web content into forms that are more usable for their particular needs. For example by:

For these web browsing methods to work, developers need to ensure that the presentation of web content is independent of its underlying structure, and that the structure is correctly coded so that it can processed by software and presented in different ways. For instance, some people do not see the content and need lists, headings, tables, and other page structures to be properly coded so that they can be identified by software.

Some people are only seeing small portions of the content at a time or are perceiving the colors and design differently. Some people are using customized fonts, colors, and spacing to make the content more readable, or they are navigating through the content using keyboard only because they cannot see the mouse-pointer. An accessible design supports different presentations of the web content, and different ways for interaction.

Examples of visual disabilities

Examples of barriers for people with visual disabilities

Sections related to visual disabilities

Stories of web users:

Diversity in web use:

Accessibility principles:

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