When webmasters talk about a website's accessibility, they are referring to whether your website can be used by people with disabilities. For example, can a blind person use your website and access its content? While I am certainly no expert where accessibility is concerned, this tutorial discusses some of the commonly used techniques that can make your website more usable by such people.
Please note that I'm not going to be using politically correct euphemisms here. I want to avoid misunderstanding, and be clear so that webmasters know exactly what I'm talking about and can improve their websites. For example, if I start using terms like "visually impaired" (which can mean a whole range of things) and other such circumlocutions, instead of simply "blind", this article may end up being too obscure to be useful. The aim is to help both webmasters as well as the people who really need sites to be accessible. Euphemisms that cloud the issue will help no one here.
There are undoubtedly many types of disabilities around. For this article, I will only discuss four types of disabilities. You should not take this list as exhaustive. For each type of disability, I will mention the adjustments that webmasters need to make to their sites so that people with these handicaps can use your site.
There are different types of colour blindness (or "color blindness" if you use US English).
There are those that cause the person to see everything in monochrome colours (like black and white), the very common red-green colour blindness where the person can't (or finds it hard to) distinguish red and green hues, and the blue-yellow colour blindness where the problem lies with discriminating between blue and yellow hues. Even within each of these broad categories, there are differences in the way they perceive colours.
Do not be deceived and think that your site is immune because it doesn't use (say) red or green. The different types of colour blindness can cause the colours of your site to appear completely different from what you intend. The end result is that your text may be indistinguishable from your background or that different elements of your page may appear merged with the rest of your page. For example, the "buttons" on your side panel may appear to have the same colour as the rest of your page, so that the colour-blind person reading may not realise that those are buttons.
Here are some practical suggestions for designing your website so that people with colour blindness can still use the site:
As far as possible, do not make your site dependent on colours. For example, if the only way to distinguish a link from normal text on your site is by its colour, and you're not careful when choosing your colours, it's entirely possible that a colour-blind person will not be able to see any links on your site. For your main content, it's generally best not to remove the underlining from your links.
Where you have important information, try to use black text on a white background, like what you see on the main article portion of thesitewizard.com and thefreecountry.com. Such a colour scheme is readable by anyone, colour-blind or not.
When I say "poor eyesight" here, I'm referring to people who have difficulty reading or seeing things clearly, even with the aid of glasses. This not only includes people who may have inherited such poor eyesight, or have them through accidents, but also for the large number of elderly people. As a person grows older, one of the ailments he/she faces is failing vision.
As webmasters, we can improve the chances that people with poor eyesight will be able to read and use our sites by doing the following.
Some sites have incredibly small print. Their web designers are probably highly focused on aesthetics and see the text as merely part of the sites' overall visual appearance rather than the most important part of the page. It's also possible that these webmasters have designed the page on a large monitor. The problem with this is that such sites are unreadable even for people with normal eyesight when they use a notebook/laptop with a high resolution but small monitor. Since laptops/notebooks are now the rage, with sales even exceeding those of desktops in some (many?) quarters, if your site uses small print, many of your audience will have difficulty reading what you write.
In the end, as you design, you have to remember that aesthetics is not everything. If your visitors cannot see what you say, or find great difficulty reading, your site is not going to be as successful as it can be.
Verdict: don't make your font size too small.
Another thing that will help people with poor eyesight read your site is to make sure that the colours of your text and the background have a high contrast. Don't put white words on a grey background or grey words on a white or black background. These combinations are extremely difficult to distinguish for people with poor eyesight. (In fact, they are not easy to read even for people with normal eyesight.)
Although white text on a black background may seem to fulfill this suggestion of contrasting colours, in general, for things that are read on a computer monitor, black text on a white background is vastly better. (This is probably the reason why all wordprocessing software nowadays use such a default colour scheme.)
If you have never had a blind friend, you may not realise that blind people can and do surf the web as well. They do so with the help of software known as screen readers. These programs read aloud everything that appears on the screen or their browsers to their users.
Surfing the web with a screen reader is a tedious business. As a sighted person, you may not be able to fully appreciate the chore it is until you've tried using a screen reader yourself (blindfolded, of course, so that you don't cheat). When you look at a web page, say this page on thesitewizard.com, in spite of what you may think, you don't actually read every single line on the page. You'll probably have instinctively ignored my logo on the top left hand corner of the page as well as the entire column of navigation buttons. Instead, you'll have zoomed straight into the article itself. Chances are that you've scanned the title, and immediately started reading (or scanning) the article contents.
Someone dependent on a screen reader can do no such thing. The screen reader goes through your entire web page and reads it aloud, line by line, in the exact order in which the words appear in the HTML code (which may not correspond to the visual order). If it encounters a picture with no description tag, it will just say something like "image", and move on. Otherwise it reads everything. Everything.
Commercial screen readers have some convenience features, of course. They allow you to skip paragraphs, move from section to section, and so on. But no matter how you look at it, reading a site with the help of a screen reader is nothing like reading it visually.
As a webmaster, there are a few things that you can do to make life easier for the blind person.
Screen readers cannot "read" images. They cannot see, for example, a photo of your children playing in the park and immediately tell the blind person, "picture of 4 children playing in the park". In order for your images to be meaningful to a blind person, you need to add description tags to those images. Such description tags are called "ALT" tags in HTML parlance. I've mentioned how you can do this in my article How to Create a Search Engine Friendly Website, so you should read that article if you're not familiar with the concept.
(Note: If you use one of my web design tutorial series, like How to Create a Website with Dreamweaver CS4 or How to Design and Publish Your Website with KompoZer, and followed my suggestions, your images will probably be already tagged.)
As a side effect, putting ALT tags on your images will benefit your site not just with blind visitors, but also with the search engines, which for all practical intents and purposes, are also "blind".
There are a few ways in which you can inadvertently make your web page dependent on images.
Some people like to create web pages that are so rich in pictures that even the navigation elements, like links, are represented by images. They probably think "a picture is worth a thousand words" or the like. It's possible for such sites to be a usability nightmare for blind people if you're not careful. They can also hurt the site's search engine performance, as I have written previously in "Why Is My Site Not Ranking in the Search Engines?".
Obviously, just having images that link to other pages on your site does not necessarily mean that your site is inaccessible, since separate images, each with descriptive ALT tags, linking out can still result in an accessible site. What I mean is when the navigation elements on your page require a person to be able to actually see the image, and move the mouse to click at specific spots in the image or object. An example of this is when a site uses an image map or a Flash object where clicking different parts of the image or Flash object will take the visitor to different parts of the website.
If your site does such things, try to replace your navigation system with one that either uses separate images (properly tagged) for each link, or one that uses text links. It's okay to use things like a CSS-driven menu button system, the way thesitewizard.com does, since, despite its graphical appearance, it is actually entirely text-driven. (It's just a visual trick done using CSS).
There are also websites where the webmasters have obviously used an image editor to create the design and write the text content. They then dumped the entire picture as their website. The links are image maps. Even the text you see is just part of the image. Needless to say, such a site is very difficult, if not impossible, for the blind to use. To fix such a site, use a web editor to craft your site, and only use images for design elements and other things that really need pictures.
On some sites, before you can fill an online form, be it a contact form or even a search form (for certain forum scripts), you are required to enter a series of letters and numbers shown in a picture. This is known as a CAPTCHA test, designed to make sure that the one filling in the form is a human being and not a spam "bot" (computer program). The webmasters implement this to weed out the spam sent by such bots, since they only want feedback from real human visitors (obviously).
While the reasons for implementing a sort of CAPTCHA test are understandable, the image also prevents blind users from using your web form. To work around this, some sites (as well as at least one free CAPTCHA script) provide a link to an audio file which the visitor can play to read the string of letters and numbers aloud. Unfortunately, this method is not without its flaws, accessibility-wise, as you shall see later in this article.
One of the problems with using a screen reader to read a web page is that it sees the web page as a stream of words, appearing one at a time. If the HTML for your web page begins with (say) a left column with all the navigation buttons, a typical screen reader will proceed to read your navigation button one by one, through the whole list, before it reaches your content. This is of course not what you want, nor is it what your blind user wants. The navigation menu is meant for visitors to move away from the page to other pages on your site, after they're done with your existing page.
There are a couple of ways to deal with this.
If your site has multiple columns (which it probably does since it's the fad these days), and you know that your left column appears first in the HTML code, put a link pointing to the main content as one of the first things appearing in that left column. You can use the technique mentioned in my article How to Link to a Specific Line or Paragraph on a Web Page Using HTML to do this. Your link should use plain language, like "skip to main content", "skip directly to the article", "skip navigation links" or the like, so that the blind user encountering it will know what to do.
This method is used by many accessibility-aware sites.
Another way is to put the main content first in the HTML code, as thesitewizard.com does. For those who use tables for your layout, one way to do this is to use the technique described in How to Present Content First in a Multi-Column Table Layout.
Note that you cannot tell just by looking at a web page with a browser or your visual web editor whether the content or the side column comes first. With CSS, it's possible to put the side panel or top panel visually first, and yet in the underlying HTML code, present the content first. To do this however, you will need to be familiar with both CSS and HTML. If this is not the case, it's much easier to simply put a "Skip to main content" link near the top of your code.
Commercial screen readers usually have many features that attempt to make reading a web page more pleasant. For example, they may read out all the section headings on a particular page and allow their readers to skip to the appropriate section. This is perhaps an attempt to mimic the way sighted people scan a page visually.
In order for the software to be able to do this for your web page, you will need to divide your page into various sections and give headers to each of those sections (where possible).
In general, Flash objects present a lot of problems. Assess carefully whether your use of Flash on your site is necessary, and whether it can be replaced with simple text, images and normal links. If so, that is the best solution, accessibility-wise, search-engine-wise, as well as usability-wise. In cases where this is not possible, read up on Adobe's information on the accessibility features available in Flash, and code your object to take advantage of them.
Although you may not realise this, there are people in the world who are both blind and deaf. These people "read" documents by using some sort of tactile display, for example, a Braille console that translates the text on your web page into Braille symbols which they can feel with their fingers.
I mentioned earlier that even CAPTCHA images that have accompanying playable audio files have accessibility issues. For people who are both blind and deaf, neither the image nor the audio file is accessible to them. If you use such a CAPTCHA method to protect yourself from spam, you are also inadvertently blocking out these people.
This tutorial is obviously not exhaustive, in both the types of disabilities discussed as well as in the measures that webmasters can take to make browsing their site easier for people with disabilities. I will address other aspects of accessibility in separate articles on thesitewizard.com.
For now, if you are looking for ways to improve your website, the above is probably good as a starting point to make your site more accessible. Use it as a checklist for evaluating your existing sites as well as when designing a new one.
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