The original creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, dreamed of an information space that was open to everyone on the planet. But like many dreams, imagination took over and the vision became layered with roadblocks that effectively brought down the shutters for many users.
Accessibility returns to that original vision – to make web content readable and comprehensible for everyone, regardless of ability.
I liken “accessibility” to installing a wheelchair ramp in your building, or to traffic lights that buzz when it’s safe for pedestrians to cross the road.
No barriers to entry, please
Vision impairment, or any physical disability that prevents a person from using a mouse, should not be a barrier to your content.
In fact, it is illegal to launch a website that cannot be accessed by everyone – as a recent US lawsuit revealed. Web developers are on to it. Marketers need to be on to it, too.
Accessibility is as important as any other aspect of web development. As a web developer, I need to bear in mind that people who cannot see or use a mouse will be using this website and it is my job to ensure that they can.
Does your website play nice with screen readers?
The first step is to avoid the gratuitous use of images. An image-heavy website locks up content from screen readers, slows the downloading of your pages, and lowers the potential for high search engine rankings.
Not only do people need to be able to read the text within your images, screen readers — technology that reads out text on a website for people who can’t read it themselves—need to be able to as well.
Accessibility can be as basic as using ‘alt’ attributes that allow you to apply meta data to your images, where hovering over the image opens the door to more information. The ‘alt’ function is the first step to making a site visible and one would certainly hope that all web developers are using it now.
Technology like Flash isn’t flash at all in the accessibility stakes—in fact, Flash is just one giant image. Your content also needs to make sense when read out of context. For instance, links in your text which say “Read more” or “Click here” mean absolutely nothing to people who can’t read what is on the page. Screen readers are able to pull out all links from a page therefore they need to have more substance like: “Read more about our latest speaking events.”
There are many other things you can do to assist screen readers, such as Skip Links. Screen readers not only scan a website to detect where you are but, as mentioned above, can pull up a list of links. At the top of the document, it’s often a good idea to include some links that can allow users to jump directly to the main content area, search function or navigation. The Skip Links function is very useful as it allows immediate access to three of the most important parts of any site—content, search and navigation.
Accessibility for the masses
Accessibility is not just for people with complete vision impairment. It is also for people who have difficulty with low contrast or small fonts. A lot of these users use screen magnifiers, therefore when building websites, developers need to ensure that images don’t separate when people zoom in on the page. Building your site with scalable fonts is also a major plus for accessibility. There is a built in feature in every browser that allows the user to increase the font size however this is only available across all browsers if you use scalable font sizes like em, % or keywords.
The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind recently won an award for the accessibility and creativity of their website. There are nice little features like high contrast mode or the ability to adjust the color in the text. These are features that are easy to implement using CSS and should not be overlooked.
Accessibility is not just for the vision or physically impaired. Its universality means you can view website content on any medium, such as a laptop, cell phone or fridge if the Internet is connected.
Making it happen
Web developers can do their best to make a website accessible, but the bottom line is you only know if it is truly accessible by getting vision impaired users to use it and give you feedback.
There are many companies and agencies out there more than happy to help. For instance, the RNZFB has a whole IT department who can test your website and there are international groups that will do the same. Approach your local university to set up a user feedback test for you.
Accessibility is best practice web development. It is about access—like a ramp or a lift for people who can’t walk up the stairs to your office—to your website. More and more governmental agencies are making it law to cater for all audiences. If you are building a website, you need to be aware of this.
Essentially, accessibility is all about returning to the vision that created the World Wide Web in the first place.