Shawn Lawton Henry, who leads worldwide education and outreach activities for the Worldwide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, says there's a lesson for mobile developers in its Web Accessibility Guidelines.
"About nine years ago I was involved with a young startup," she explained, "and our Web site was designed to be 100 percent accessible. That was considered a priority. We didn't even think about mobile devices."
"Then about a year later, our CEO got one of those fancy, new-fangled phones that surf the Internet, and the first thing she wanted to do was to go to our Web site. It worked great. It was very cool. Most Web sites at the time were really awful on it."
As mobility continues its skyward trajectory, the consortium, also known as W3C, has found the requirements for accessing mobile content deeply intertwined with those to help people with disabilities use desktop or laptop computers-and mobile devices.
The W3C in May published a third draft updating its Mobile Web Best Practices, initially published in July 2008. It released its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 in December and will publish in the next month or so a study of the relationship between the two. She said those ties with mobile also help make the business case for accessibility.
Henry says the accessibility guidelines, which I wrote about earlier, are designed to be broad enough to apply to a desktop, a smartphone or any other device.
The overlap gets really interesting, she says, when it comes to surfing the Web on a mobile device.
"Either you only see a small bit of the Web page at a time or the font is really small, those kinds of things," she says. "Those issues that everybody has when using a mobile device are very similar to what many people with disabilities have using just a desktop or laptop computer."
Indeed, this video of AbilityNet consultant Johann De Boer explaining his difficulties with screen magnification on his desktop feels eerily similar to those smartphone users' experience.
Other common problems-having trouble hearing in a noisy place, having trouble typing in data on the keyboard, finding navigation too confusing-also reflect the kinds of problems people with various types of disabilities have.
While there's disagreement within the industry over whether it makes more sense to create separate mobile content, the W3C advocates for a single set of content, a concept called One Web. Opera Software's Bruce Lawson makes that case in this ZDNet Asia piece.
Henry, meanwhile, says that in the past people focused on accessibility and those focused on mobile devices often didn't understand the bigger picture. But doing so, she says, can help everyone.
Speaking at the European Accessibility Forum in Germany earlier this year, Dominique Hazal-Massieux, the W3C's Mobile Web Initiative Activity Lead, said the two areas tend to be seen differently.
Mobile is seen as fun and exciting, attracting lots of young people, while accessibility is seen as changing users' lives by allowing them access to new information or to interact in new ways.
"Any effort you put into accessibility will make your Web site more mobile friendly," he added.