Web Accessibility for Dummies

The internet has been a wonderful tool to make knowledge and information available to individuals who may not have had access to such information before.  Amongst all the pictures of cats, videos of people getting hit in the balls and porn, the internet is a treasure chest of stories, facts, opinions and trivia that has likely enriched the lives of everyone reading this post.  The internet has also been hugely beneficial to people with disabilities, although the majority of the web is not always designed to meet their needs.  If you’re a blogger or website owner, this post will provide you with some simple, easy to implement solutions for making sure your site or blog is able to be enjoyed by the largest possible number of readers.

Users with disabilities interact with the web in a variety of ways, depending on the nature of his/her disability.  For example, users with physical limitations may use adapted interface devices that can be controlled with limited movement, eye movements or breath.  Visually impaired users can employ screen readers which access and interpret the HTML source code of a page to read content aloud, as well as using browser features to increase the size of the text or magnify the entire contents of the screen.  For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on visually impaired users, but we’ll be discussing how to accommodate and assist other users with disabilities in future articles.

Visual impairment can range from limited or blurred vision to complete blindness, with most individuals falling somewhere in the middle.   There are a number of conditions which can contribute to visual impairment, including macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, retinal detachment or retinitis pigmentosa.  (for more information about these vision related disorders, click here.)   More than 25 million American adults have some degree of visual impairment. Roughly 15 million are women, 20 million are white, 14.2 million are married or living with a partner, 10.4 million have a family income of less than $35,000 and an estimated 1.5 million (at the time of survey, this data is considered out of date) use computers.  Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health Interview Survey, 2008.  Data on computer use source: The U.S. Bureau of the Census (1999) “Survey of Income and Program Participation” (SIPP) and “Who’s Surfing? Internet Access and Computer Use by Visually Impaired Youth and Adults” by Elaine Gerber and Corinne Kirchner. (2001). Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 95 (3), 176-181.  By way of American Federation of the Blind Facts and Figures.

Designing your website to be usable by individuals with visual impairment is simpler than you might assume, with most good design principles for visually impaired readers pulling directly from good web design principles in general.  The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organization known for encouraging standards based web design, is the leader in understanding and assimilating information related to creating accessible web pages through the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). They provide a list of informative (meaning you don’t have to follow the guidelines, but it’d be a lot cooler if you did) guidelines for ensuring your site is accessible to ALL internet users here.   If you aren’t comfortable enough with your technical skill to take on all of their recommendations, you can use the techniques below to greatly increase how accessible your site is.

1. Always provide alternative text for any non-text content you have on your site.  WordPress and many other web authoring services make this really easy to do, by providing a text field within the media tools interface.  Screen readers will find and read aloud the alt text for visually impaired users.   Providing clear, concise descriptions of the content in the alt text will ensure all your readers are experiencing the same thing when they come to your site.  Resist the urge to use sarcasm or humor in your alt text, you can always add a caption if you need to bring the funny.

2. Don’t rely on tables to do the work CSS is designed to do.   Which means, save your tables for data, use CSS for layout.

3. Use HTML properly.  Define headings as headings, not formatted paragraph text.

4. Screen readers aren’t yet sentient, they can’t read images.  While this is marginally hilarious (and also mildly NSFW for swearing and almost nudity) it’s impossible.  If you have important information you want your readers to read, don’t put the text in an image.  This means Flash, too.

5. Provide an alternate way to view your site.  A quick and easy way to do this is to provide a mobile version, which automatically strips down a site to the basic information.  WordPress has an excellent plug in, and I’m sure other platforms do as well.

Would you like to know how your site or blog is interpreted by a screen reader?  You can download a free trial of JAWS (PC only), the most popular and widely used reader, by clicking here.  Macs, I believe, have screen reading tech built right in.  If you have any questions or would like more information, drop us a line in the comments.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

One reply on “Web Accessibility for Dummies”

This is very good. I am not blind, and only had minor visual impairment for a while (hooray for modern medicine!), but I can’t even begin to count the number of websites that I’ve been to that have light gray text on a white background, or that have tiny, non-resizeable text. Even now, with 20/20 vision, I have difficulty with tiny text.

Mostly, this is on commercial websites… I generally send a “Well, I was going to buy something from you. I can’t read your text, so I can’t find it, and now I’m not going to buy anything.”

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