Web Accessibilty

accessibility iconsThe Americans with Disability Act (ADA), was passed in 1990 “to [eliminate] discrimination against people with disabilities.” Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989 and developing in 1990 both the first web server, and the first web browser, called WorldWideWeb and later renamed Nexus.

The Internet and the WWW provided both new opportunities for those with disabilities and new challenges.

Making things accessible to all in a digital environment takes extra thought and effort and, unfortunately, that is still not being done in all case. I am sensitive and aware of many of these issues but willing to admit that I don’t always run every check on webpages or add relevant alt tags to every image.

I have worked on a number of online projects that required focus groups and user testing, but those tests did not usually include people with disabilities or specifically address all the issues of accessibility testing.

using a touchscreen with a head dauber
A voter with a manual dexterity disability is making choices on a touchscreen with a head dauber

There have been design jobs I have done that required accessible checks because they were government sites or grant-funded by government agencies. The website for the Poetry Center at PCCC is an example of a site that because of its funding support

There are now free tools that will check many, but not all, of the most important accessibility issues on your website. WAVE Toolbar is an extension originally designed for the Firefox browser but now available in Chrome. It’s an interesting example because if you view it using Firefox you get the message: “The WAVE Firefox Toolbar is no longer available. It is no longer compatible with new Firefox versions and the Mozilla add-on developer environment no longer supports the functionality required for toolbar evaluation. We recommend that you install the updated WAVE Chrome extension.” Even accessibility tools aren’t always accessible.

Each of these tools requires interpretation in the same way that using a spellchecker or grammar checker or plagiarism-detecting tool require user interpretation. On the Poetry Center website, I will get “errors” that say “Heading markup should be used if this content is intended as a heading” but the noted line of code is not intended as a heading, so I can dismiss the error.

This post itself will produce dozens of errors in a check and some of them are out of my control because they are built into the WordPress theme I am using and I don’t have complete control over things like built-in anchors and semantic tags. Still, it is still worth running the checks to see if there are things I can address, such as images without tags (descriptions for visually-impaired users) or tables that will not present the information intended correctly to someone using a screen reader.

Do I always run a check on every page I produce. No. I am guilty of doing general checking when I first produce a site and then getting lazy as I add pages (especially true for blogs). Did I run a check on this post because it is about accessibility? Yes.

A more customizable and detailed tool (perhaps harder to use and interpret for some) is HTML_CodeSniffer which is a bookmarklet that works with most browsers.

Do you ever view your site in all the current browsers? Though you might dismiss Internet Explorer as old school, if 35% of your site visitors are using it, you can’t dismiss it.

Is your site mobile-friendly and more than just friendly to phone and tablet users?

Another tool is Tota11y which is described as “an accessibility visualization toolkit…a single JavaScript file that inserts a small button in the bottom corner of your document.” When you click on the button, you see where your web page has accessibility problems.

Good places to start are probably not with the tools as much as with some sites with information about accessibility in general. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides both. They have a Web Evaluation Tools List and also information such as “How People with Disabilities Use the Web.

WebAIM is another source offering “Considering the User Perspective: A Summary of Design Issues,” and information on the “Principles of Accessible Design” as part of its “Introduction to Web Accessibility.

A search will also provide many simple articles, such as “25 Ways to Make Your Website Accessible,” that can get you started as a designer with making your designs more accessible.

The first step is simply being aware that there are always potential problems for some users when you present information in a digital environment. For example, will someone using a screen reader know that I put “aware” in italics in the previous sentence, and how important is my use of italics, bold and especially colors to the meaning of the information? What is left when all of that is stripped away?

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