Consider for a moment how many visual cues you rely on when accessing a Web site. Without even thinking, your eyes quickly scan navigation menus, examine main headings, spy the search box, and skim over other links. Your hand automatically reaches for the mouse to move to different elements. Now consider the same site visit if you were blind. Think about how difficult it would be if you had to use your keyboard to navigate instead of your mouse, and you had to rely on a screen reader, a program designed to help the blind navigate Web sites by reading each individual link and heading to you, one step at a time, based on each keyboard command.
It would be, as one Web accessibility expert put it, like looking at a Web site through a soda straw, only able to process one small part of the site at a time without the contextual clues most of us take for granted. It would take patience and training, to be sure. Yet the most important aspect would be that the company took your needs into consideration when conceiving the site so that the software could do its job and help you find your way around.
Unfortunately, until recently, not enough companies took Web accessibility into account when designing Web sites, but that is changing, partly due to awareness and partly due to regulation. Section 508, a law requiring federal agencies in the United States to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, compels organizations to comply with the standard for content accessibility outlined in the statute if they want to do business with the federal government. Other laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and guidelines like the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative are also prompting companies to take a closer look at making Web sites accessible.
When you make a Web site accessible, you are designing it so that people who use assistive technology like screen reader software or magnifiers (as a couple of examples) can access, navigate, and use the site. Jared Smith, a consultant with WebAIM, an organization based at Utah State University Center for People with Disabilities, says there are some basic tenets related to how you design the Web site and write the HTML code that underlies your design to make it accessible to assistive technology like screen reader software. Smith offers some examples (this is not a comprehensive list) of design elements you have to think about when designing an accessible Web site.
The biggest design problem, according to Smith, is related to non-text elements like graphics. In order to identify these elements to a screen reader, your site must provide ALT text, language that is associated with non-text elements that provides contextual meaning in cases in which users cannot see the graphic, in a manner similar to a tool tip in an application. "The biggest issues I see on the Web are related to individuals who are blind, whose technologies cannot understand non-text information. Screen readers can only catch text. If it's not text, you need to provide alternative text," he says.
Even when designers remember to add the ALT text, he says, they sometimes include way too much information or too little. Smith points out that validation tools check to see if the ALT text is there, but they don't evaluate the quality of the text that's written and it's not always easy to know how much is enough. "That's why it's something we struggle with. How much or how little is appropriate? It's just a judgment call and there are no standards or guidelines" for this particular aspect, Smith says.
Another big issue is what Smith calls usability. For example, he says, "A lot of Web pages seem to be usable, but to many individuals they may not be. For instance, if the page is enlarged using magnifying software, navigation may become unusable." He says that using semantically correct HTML is important, as are clearly marked headings. This helps screen readers, which follow the headings in the underlying HTML, to help the visitor understand the site's contents.
Debra Rhu, president of accessibility consulting firm TecAccess, says it's important to work with companies to help them get to a goal of total compliance with maximum accessibility without being overly critical of what they have failed to do. When Section 508 was updated, she says, "there were a lot of bad cops [criticizing Web design], and it was frustrating for companies who felt no matter what they were doing, it was never good enough. Nobody said what it meant to be right." Companies like TecAccess (and WebAIM and others) got into the business to help companies find their way through the laws and regulations.