Are text–only Web pages an accessible alternative?

People with disabilities face many accessibility barriers when they try to access web sites. Some web site developers, in a well-intended effort to make their web sites accessible, provide two versions of their web site -the "regular" or primary version and a "text-only" version, which contains the text of the web site without any associated graphics or media files. However, there are serious drawbacks to this approach. Because additional text-only web sites can be expensive and difficult to maintain, visitors are concerned that the text-only site may not be updated as regularly as the primary site. Often, text-only sites are also not fully accessible.

Many Web developers believe that a text-only version of a web site completely addresses issues of accessibility. In fact, while text-only sites are usually accessible to a person using a screen reader, users with partial sight, learning or cognitive disabilities, limited hand use, or hearing impairments may find the text-only site as difficult or even more difficult to access than the regular site. These users are better served by a Web page that is consistently organized and laid out and that allows them to re-size the text and graphics, access audio content in multiple ways, and navigate the site by using the keyboard alone. 

As mentioned earlier, a problem with text-only sites is that they may create a situation where an organization has to maintain and update two parallel web sites Often, due to time and financial constraints, the text-only page is not kept up to date. With an outdated text-only page, the current content of the primary page is still inaccessible. 

Currently, there is software available that can create and/or update text-only pages automatically, but the updated pages still need to be checked for clarity, and many users distrust that this check has been done. The Web standards community is currently working toward creating a World Wide Web where content will be entirely separate from presentation and will be delivered to users in the form that makes most sense for the individual user and the user's technology (e. g., screen reader, Web browser, wireless phone, hand-held computer). In fact, there are many database-driven web sites on which text and graphic versions are automatically generated on the fly. However, until this practice becomes widespread, the problems with text-only pages will continue to keep many low-vision users and blind users (the primary target of text-only pages) from using them.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 state that text-only pages should only be used as a last resort:

11.4 If, after best efforts, you cannot create an accessible page, provide a link to an alternative page that uses W3C® technologies, is accessible, has equivalent information (or functionality), and is updated as often as the inaccessible (original) page.

The Section 508 Standards make a similar statement:

(k) A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a Web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes. (Emphasis added.)

Overall, it is much more effective, easier, and less expensive to design and create one accessible web site from the beginning than to create and maintain parallel sites. The Section 508 Standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are excellent resources for learning to design accessible web sites