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The idea that the web can be universally accessed is sometimes called universality. It essentially means that information online can be accessed (not necessarily used or understood) via whatever devices or access tool a user has available to them, regardless of bandwidth; older devices; mobile devices; non-visual devices. No element of the online document should depend entirely on a medium: they should make allowances for alternate means of access.

In principal, this concept relates very closely to web accessibility. Part of accessibility is certainly providing the ability for users to access information regardless of their access to tools, since some users with disabilities will be unable to use the more standard user agents.

It is not, however, equivalent to web accessibility.

Why discuss this again?

There’s a long standing argument between accessibility specialists on whether or not accessibility should incorporate the principles of universality. The argument has been passed around for a long time with no particular agreement. The definition of universality as it applies to the web is not closed: the argument essentially revolves around differentiating between the idea that universality should be integral to accessible design principles. The goal of universality seeks to provide better access for everybody. It may not, however, serve the singular purpose of providing usable information for some users with disabilities.

A common thread in many of the articles referenced is the idea that universality is about making websites accessible to all people. That’s not really the interpretation I put on the word, however: making websites accessible to all human users is always the goal, however impossible. I don’t think anybody is arguing on the question of whether or not websites should be made accessible to all people: the question seems to really be about whether or not making a website usable on a mobile device (for example) is part of accessibility. My definition of web universality falls more in the vein of device-independence than in the vein of a universal human experience.

It’s not that device-independence makes inaccessible sites; it’s that device-independence doesn’t require accessibility for users with disabilities. It’s a fine line, but quite significant. The main question is whether you’re thinking primarily about human users or about machine readability.

Device-independent documents online may not require consideration of many of the features which are necessary to make information most accessible to users with cognitive difficulties, for example. These users may be better served by Flash animation or other interactive graphical interfaces — a format which is not device independent.

Is Web Universality an Accessibility Question?

Yes. Even though universality may not resolve the difficulties of all web users, it is still necessary to consider aspects of it during your development. Here’s the hard question: is it more important to make the essential information accessible to all, or to make the essential information understandable to all? Universality may make the information accessible; but not all individuals will be able to understand that information. Well-planned accessibility might make the information understandable by that group, but then make it inaccessible to another group.

In principal, knowing your target audience needs to be paramount. You need solid information about their needs, abilities, and the devices they’ll use to access your website. If you’ve successfully made your website usable by those who use it, you’ve won the battle. This is, however, a circular problem. You can never know who might use your website. Those who use it may be biased towards those who can use it — you may have already lost a part of your potential audience through an unforeseen accessibility or usability error.

What’s the Solution?

There is no solution. All you can do is be prepared to make changes as necessary in order to meet your audience on their terms.

The ideal solution simply doesn’t exist — a solution where some kind of XML-based data source could be interpreted in vastly different ways depending on the preferences and capabilities of the user isn’t really available. (One challenge being creating a way to identify the needs of a user without requiring them to have the cognitive abilities or technical knowledge to set their own preferences.)

Universality is measurable in a positive function. Hypothetically, you can demonstrate that every device with every piece of software can access your document. (Nobody does; and probably nobody ever will…but hypothetically….) Accessibility is not. Users with disabilities can’t be measured on an x=y basis: no two users are identical, regardless of equivalent disabilities. As such, universality is an effective basis to develop web sites on in any situation where you’re not expecting an audience which will require other specialized access methods. Your expectations may be wrong; and you should be aware of this and prepared for it. However, for the average site, making the choice to pursue universality with a strong awareness of accessibility issues IS an effective method of developing an accessible website.

It’s critical to note the inclusion of “with a strong awareness of accessibility issues” in that last statement. Universality, under my defintion, only requires that the information is made available to a device. Accessibility requires far more than that, including attention to color contrast, clear use of language amd appropriate alternatives to any media elements. Universality within accessibility is a worthwhile goal; but shouldn’t be mistaken as a method to provide perfect accessibility.