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How Can I Make My Website Accessible?

29 April, 2009, Written by 0 comment

Business owners need to consider the needs of a wide range of people who might want to use their services. In this article we will discuss some of the problems which certain people might face when using your website and what you can do to address them.

Types of Disabilities

Visual Disabilities

Visual impairment is one of the most serious barriers for some people who might want to do business with you online. According the U.S. government’s National Eye Institute, 1 in 37 people over the age of 40 suffer either blindness or acute low vision. This is a significant figure in itself and its likely to grow rapidly as the baby boomers enter their sixties and seventies.

Color blindness is also a common visual disability, especially in men. Seven percent of the male population either cannot distinguish red from green, or see red and green differently from most people.

Hearing disabilities

The web is no longer just a quiet visual medium. Audio visual content via sites like YouTube and Flash based demonstrations are now an integral part of the web. People who are hard of hearing may rely on captions for audio content and/or amplification of audio. They may need to toggle the captions on an audio file on or off, or adjust the volume of an audio file.

Neurological and Cognitive disabilities

Certain types of animated effects can induce seizure in the 5% of epileptic suffers who have a condition known as Photosensitive epilepsy. Recently the London Olympic Committee had to withdraw a promotional film after receiving numerous complaints from people who experienced epileptic seizures induced by watching the material.

Can’t use a computer mouse

Some individuals with neuromuscular impairments have difficulty controlling a computer mouse. Some have tremors which don’t allow for fine muscle control. Others have little or no use of their hands, due to a spinal cord injury, brain damage, or some other cause. Some people simply do not have hands, whether due to a birth defect, an accident, or amputation. There is an almost limitless list of conditions that could make mouse usage difficult or impossible.

Accessibility devices

Thanks to advances in technology and in response to social pressure, computer hardware and software makers have been breaking down the barriers which prevent people with restrictive disabilities from participating in the online world.

Microsoft Vista comes with built-in accessibility tools such as Magnifier (a program that makes sections of the screen appear larger), Narrator (a text-to-speech reading program) and improved speech recognition capabilities. Apple has also built a range of accessibility features into their OS X system.

There is an almost limitless list of conditions that could make mouse usage difficult or impossible.

Why you should think about accessibility

The law may require it.

In the United States, Section 508 of the U.S. Federal Rehabilitation Act requires that certain government agencies and educational institutions make their information technology, including websites, accessible to people with disabilities.  In the private sector also there are legal concerns. In 2008 the Target company settled a 6 million dollar class action lawsuit against them on the grounds that their website was inaccessible to visually impaired customers.

Everyone benefits.

The techniques used to make websites accessible for the disabled also help to make your website a better user experience for the non-disabled. Easier navigation, less confusing content and faster download times are benefits that everybody can enjoy.

It helps your bottom line.

In the U.S.A almost 60 million people have some kind of disability. That is a population on a par with a country the size of Italy and a huge economic opportunity. People with disabilities want to be fed, housed, clothed and entertained just like everybody else. If your website is inaccessible you could be missing out on sales and profit.

It’s the right thing to do.

People notice the efforts companies make to be socially responsible and endorse them with goodwill (e.g. BodyShop, Starbucks).  Virtue is not just its own reward.

Pick the low hanging fruit

Some people give up on the task of improving accessibility because they become convinced its unachievable. This is definitely untrue. It just requires thinking about your website in a different way and asking yourself what design features a disabled person would regard as important. The following is a list of 10 simple things you can do to improve your website’s accessibility.

  1. Separate structure of your web documents from presentational instructions. Use CSS style sheets to manage things like fonts and color.
  2. Use HTML headings (<h1>) tags. Blind readers in particular find these content headings very useful.
  3. Indicate the primary human language of your document in the meta tags of your document (<meta name=”language” content=”en” />for English).
  4. Whenever possible write descriptive link text which can be understood out of context (e.g. NOT “click here” links).
  5. For color blind and low vision users, be sure your content and background have sufficient contrast.
  6. Do not require users to perceive color in order to understand meaning. For instance don’t use messages like “Items marked in red are errors and need correcting”.
  7. Be sure all images have an HTML “alt” attribute (e.g. alt=”My pet cat”).  Don’t use the word “image” (e.g. NOT alt=”This is an image of my pet cat”). It’s redundant.
  8. Avoid CAPTCHA spam filters. There are better techniques available. If you absolutely must use CAPTCHA codes at least provide an audio alternative.
  9. Use the HTML label tags (<label>
  10. Test your pages for valid markup (http://validator.w3.org). If your page does not pass validation there should be a good reason. Standardized markup helps people using accessibility devices.

What’s WCAG?

To find out more about what you can do to improve your website accessibility, test your pages with the free HiSoftware® Cynthia Says online tool. This validation tool shows how your pages perform against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) formulated by the World Wide Web consortium, the standards setting body for the internet.

There are 3 levels of WCAG compliance. The first level Priority 1 is the lowest level of achievement. Failing this level may completely prevent some disabled people from using your site. Priority 2 is a higher level and failing this may mean some disabled people will still face considerable difficulty using your site. Failing the highest level, Priority 3, may mean some disabled people still find it somewhat difficult to use your site. The U.S. government’s Section 508 law is based on Priority 1 accessibility.

Summary

Accessibility is an important issue in the design of websites and likely to become even more so in the future. There are many simple design techniques which will help make your website easier for people with disabilities to access, which ultimately is beneficial for your disabled users, your non-disabled users, society and your business performance.

Still not convinced?
Well maybe you need to checkout this light hearted rap video about the WCAG (yes really) by musician and web accessibility evangelist David MacDonald. Enjoy.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!