Are You Accessible? – Accessible Web Design

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the October 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

What has always fascinated me about the Web isn’t all the graphics, images, sounds, and videos; it’s the ability to access all kinds of information. Just about anything you could ever want to know is often just a few clicks away. That’s pretty incredible. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake.Yet for some people, the access that many of us now take for granted, still seems like a distant dream. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about people in far away countries who don’t have the technology to access the Web or who may be prohibited from or limited in their access. I’m talking about people right here who may even be your neighbors.

What Is Accessibility?

In regard to the Web, accessibility refers to uninhibited access to information and in interacting with and navigating a Web site. Confused? Under a narrow definition, this typically refers to users who have some form of disability. This might be blindness or vision impairment, but also deafness or hearing impairment, or motor skills impairments.

But a broader definition that some of us in the community like to adhere to include everyone and anyone. While this might still be based on a person’s physical abilities or limitations, it might also include someone without any of these challenges, but who may be challenged in other ways – perhaps by a small laptop screen or Web-enabled mobile phone.

In either case, accessibility is something that every Web site owner needs to become aware of. Target just settled a class action lawsuit regarding the accessibility of in relation to visually impaired users – to the tune of $6 million. It’s time accessibility became a priority.

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Let’s set aside the notion of, “because it’s the right thing to do.” The real question is, “why would you turn away any customer?” When you think about it, the Web could serve as a great asset to those who experience any of these challenges. I know how challenging it is just trying to pick out cold medicine even when I can see all the boxes and read all the labels.

Now imagine if you were blind. How challenging must it be to go shopping even for everyday items? Imagine being able to go online to shop and have your purchases delivered to you. Just having that as a viable option must be rather empowering.

There are assistive technologies, such as screen readers that vocalize the content of a Web page, that help those with various impairments to use computers and the Web. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Web sites present far too many barriers even for these tools. So while the technology is there, many sites are way behind.

Understand that many of these challenges are also prohibitive to mobile browsers, which is a large and quickly growing market. Or realize there is a very large, aging population that will be facing increasing vision and dexterity issues simply due to age. And last time I introduced you to search engine optimization, or SEO. You might like to know that search engine spiders often face the same accessibility challenges, so the more accessible your site, the more SEO friendly your site.

If I was Target, I’d go out of my way to develop the best, most accessible Web site around. I’d become the go-to site when it comes to ease of use, tapping into this under-served market while every other site tries to catch up.

Everything that is done to improve accessibility is beneficial to all users. It’s a no-brainer.

Tips Toward Developing Accessible Web Sites

  • Use alt attributes on significant, non-purely-decorative images.
  • Use HTML elements properly (headings, lists, etc.).
  • Use CSS and table-less design to structure Web pages.
  • Use textual links instead of images and be sure the anchor text is descriptive, rather than “click here.”
  • Provide no-script alternatives to script-based functioning, Flash and AJAX.
  • Provide alternative navigation to jump to key content areas on Web pages.