According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians is disabled in some way, and with an ageing population the figure is likely to rise.
For many disabled people the Internet can provide an important access point to the wider world; if, that is, the site can be read by a screen reader for a blind user, navigated using speech by a quadriplegic user, and has audio available as text for deaf users.
Providing improved access for disabled people, however, isn't just about "doing the right thing"; accessibility done properly can bring important economic benefits.
One important bonus is reaching a whole new workforce. IBM business development executive Mark Bagshaw, himself a quadriplegic, says there are 606,000 Australians not working and receiving disability support. He believes that finding jobs for just a fraction of this group, many of whom would love to find work, would help tackle skills shortages.
Particularly challenged to find jobs are blind or vision impaired people. According to a survey released in March by Vision Australia, 69 percent of Australians of working age who are blind or vision impaired are unemployed, and 34 percent of blind or vision impaired graduates don't have jobs.
Fortunately Tim Noonan isn't one of them. A graduate in cognitive psychology and special education, Noonan - who was born blind - has established a consulting business to work with enterprises that want to make their information systems more accessible without losing the aesthetics or security of the site.
At the moment, however, many corporations' move toward accessibility is driven by feedback from users or by complaints, says Noonan; and Mark Bagshaw confirms that there is a group of businesses which see compliance as the only reason to make their Web sites accessible.
Yet Noonan believes that while the legislation is a big stick, there are carrots to be offered. "When you design a system so that it is more accessible and you separate content from the presentation, Web site usability automatically improves," he says.
The World Wide Web consortium champions accessibility and recommends a series of actions and standards. For example, it recommends Web sites provide alternatives to auditory or visual content, not rely on colour alone to distinguish sections of the Web site, use proper tagging so that screen readers can identify what information is being displayed, and use context and orientation information so a blind person filling out a form knows what they are supposed to enter where.
Noonan claims that companies that do tag their Web pages rigorously, and use other programming techniques, such as harnessing cascading style sheets and using the ALT text tag to describe an on-screen image, get an important secondary benefit besides accessibility. "Using meaningful labels for images and creating page hierarchies may give better search results," said Noonan. Also when audio information is made accessible as text for hearing impaired people, there is a side effect in that Google can index that information.
That said, "The process and extensiveness of accessibility is sometimes a trade-off game," Noonan confirmed, "But if you do make your Web site more accessible then you will get a lot of extra mileage and mitigate your risk of litigation."
"The industry doesn't have a problem with accessibility as a concept, it's just the perceived complexity involved, which is why I usually get called in," he said.
Mark Bagshaw is also passionate about the need for reforms that support disabled people, and that includes reforming access to technology; "Given that technology has become such a fundamental part of the way we work and live, anyone who is excluded from it is further behind the eight ball than ever," he said.
And those companies that don't accommodate disabled people risk missing out on important streams of potential employees and revenues. As Bagshaw noted, a company which does not have accessible Web pages automatically excludes the 20 percent of Australia's population who are disabled.
In his view the fundamental difference between those companies which understand the benefits of accessibility and work toward achieving it and those that don't is: "Those companies that don't get it see this as a cost. Those companies that do get it see it as an investment."
More information of the W3C accessibility initiative is available at www.w3.org/WAI. Tim Noonan can be reached via www.timnoonan.com.au .
Beverley Head is a freelance writer who has been writing about the relationships between people, business and technology for over 20 years.