May 19 was Global Accessibility Awareness Day. This yearly event is about making the web accessible for everyone. I attended a meetup of local web developers to discuss accessibility problems and solutions.
The main speaker was Al Puzzuoli, informational technologist with Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. Al’s talk focused on the role of screen readers for people with vision disabilities.
Just what is accessibility?
For websites accessibility means designing for the widest variety of people possible. This includes making sites that can be used by people with impaired vision, deafness, or mechanical disabilities.
To put this into business terms: making your products available to as many different types of people as possible.
Why should we worry about accessibility?
The simplest answer is “because it’s the right thing to do” but there are also great business reasons for accessibility.
- There are about 7 million people in the United States with some kind of vision disability. That’s a lot of potential business to ignore and that’s just one kind of disability
- It shows that you care. This ties back to it being the right thing to do. By being a company that values accessibility, your business is making a statement about how it treats people.
- A poorly designed website can bring a lawsuit. In 2008, the National Federation for the Blind filed a lawsuit against Target that resulted in a $6 million settlement. More recently, lawsuits have been filed against Toys “r” Us, Patagonia, Red Roof Inn, and the NBA. The legal implications of accessibility problems can be significant.
- It can help your website in other ways. A site that is well designed for screen readers will also be well designed for search engine bots. Making your site accessible can help with SEO performance.
What are some best practices?
- Know your audience. It’s impossible to make a website that will be perfect for everyone. But thinking about the average age, sex, and occupation of your visitors will For example: if your company makes products for senior citizens, then you should spend more time on visual accessibility.
- Build to standards:a well-made website will already be mostly accessible. Coding to web standards is a great place to start for accessibility. This is because screen reader programs are designed for well-structured data.
- Keep an open line of communication: one site that Al showed us was scotttrade.com. Embedded in the code is a message only readable be people with screen readers that says “Thank you for visiting Scottrade.com. We have implemented a Skip to Main Content link and improved the heading structure of our site to aid in navigation with a screen reader. We are consistently making improvements to the accessibility of our site. If you are having difficulty accessing an area of the site, please contact us at email@example.com.”
Something like this is easy to program but it makes a statement on their accessibility policy. Al was impressed by the commitment to accessibility that Scottrade showed here.
- What you don’t show is just as important as what you show.
A great example of this is a clock. Would you want a voice telling you every time that the time changes? Of course not! Just because something is considered data doesn’t always mean it should be included for all users.
How can I test for accessibility?
The gold standard for accessibility testing is to have multiple disabled users try your site, but that’s not always feasible. A simpler option is to try using your site with a screen reader yourself.
- First download NVDA, this is an open source screen reader for PC that is available for free. Mac users can use the built in Voiceover utility which operates a lot like NVDA.
- Then fire it up and open up your website. It’ll take a while to get used to using the keyboard to navigate, but once you get the hang of it you might find some surprises.
What should I do if I find a problem?
- First assess the size of the problem. In talking to Al, I noticed that while I was frustrated with the screen reader, it had nothing to do with the web pages that I was viewing. A lot of what I considered annoyances were actually normal activity for him and he didn’t find them to be a problem.
- Look at your page’s organization. The screen reader I used followed the DOM tree (a nerdy web developer thing), which basically meant that it looked at how elements were grouped together in the code and helped me navigate from there. Think of your page as a plain text document and ask yourself “where would I put my headings, sub-headings, and paragraphs?”
Wrapping it up
While making a site accessible can seem daunting at first, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be. With a little planning any website can be more accessible.
This post was written by R. Mey, Web Developer at PUSH 22.