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Embracing All Abilities: Web Accessibility Standards for the New

Margaret Allen's picture

Last March, I received an email from a blind user of the World Bank website:

“I am writing to express my serious concern about the inaccessibility of the World Bank Web site. The information is clearly a valuable resource for individuals, agencies, institutions, and the list goes on and on, but the information is only as good if it is accessible! … The World Bank site is filled with incredibly useful information, but the site is written without attention to making sure the information is accessible to EVERYONE!”

The user went on to cite specific problems that his screen reader encountered on the World Bank site. Last Friday was World Disability Day, and I wanted to share with you the World Bank’s plan to introduce accessibility best practices onto the website. 

"Inaccessible" concept image: Water cascading over old stairs up a Laotian jungle hillside

When web accessibility is mentioned 508 Compliance, WCAG 1.0 or 2.0, screen readers, or legal imperatives come to mind. Beyond these buzzwords, accessibility is really about ensuring that people of all abilities can get to the information we put out there. The World Bank’s mission is to alleviate global poverty. According to our data, the link between poverty and disability is strong. While not required by law to comply with any specific web accessibility standards, the World Bank nonetheless must walk the talk when it comes to making information accessible to those with disabilities.

You might have noticed a new look and feel on the World Bank’s homepage back in October, when we blogged about how it represented more changes to come in the coming months. We’re working on a new web platform which first will be built for country site sections in early 2011, and then will gradually be rolled out across the entire site. The World Bank web team is working with expert accessibility consultants, Deque Systems, to ensure that the templates for our new web platform follow web accessibility best practices.

We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken an important stride forward by starting this project that will 1) provide a web accessibility roadmap for the Bank to follow in years to come; 2) implement initial web accessibility best practices as site sections are rolled over into the new platform; and, 3) provide the necessary training for staff to sustain and improve on web accessibility best practices over time.

Inclusive or universal design merges usability and accessibility to create products that are “inclusive, accessible, and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities.” (User Experience Magazine) In July 2010, the World Bank adopted a new access to information policy which discloses additional information to the public about Bank activities. However, we must ensure that our online visitors, with a vast range of capabilities/abilities, can use the information we’ve now made available.

Designing according to the latest web accessibility standards certainly helps the disabled population, but it also benefits other "non-disabled" user populations, such as older users, those accessing the web from a mobile device, and users with low-bandwidth connections or older technology. If we can effectively integrate both usability best practices and accessibility standards, we can open World Bank information to a wider audience coming from a range of devices, backgrounds, languages, and abilities.

It won’t happen overnight. Some 600 staff contribute to the website on a daily basis, working in more than 100 country offices. Currently, our website has hundreds of site sections, interfaces with numerous data repositories, runs off different content management platforms, and contains a great deal of legacy content. But please know that we’re working to improve our technology, policies, and staffing to ensure that our content is available to people of all abilities.


I use to live in India before moving to the US and one of the things that struck me was the attention given to people with disabilities in the US. From wheelchair friendly sidewalks to accessible buildings the effort of our society to help people with disabilities live normal and productive lives is visible everywhere. Being involved with information accessibility I have become familiar with accessibility initiatives in Canada, the UK, Japan, and Australia. This is in marked contrast to the developing world where accessibility cannot receive attention as resources are being used for more pressing problems. This leads us to the conclusion that accessibility is a yardstick of progress and, in a way, validates your inference that there is a link between accessibility and poverty. By taking the initiative on information accessibility the World Bank will introduce the concept in developing countries and encourage an interest in making their own information accessible. This is a good start at leveling the playing field between developed and developing nations regarding equal access to information.

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