This article is intended for people with normal vision, normal hearing, modern computers, and a technical background. Especially Website Owners and Web Development Firm Owners!
If that description doesn't fit you, then you're certainly welcome to read and learn something. But I think that it will be of most use to my clients who wonder why I'm so nuts about something that "seems to affect so few people." In fact, web accessibility is incredibly important and affects millions of people. A non-accessible website can lose you customers and money—and not just the people you think of as "disabled." Your next-door neighbor might be one of the people that cannot properly view your site and you may never even know it unless he tells you so himself.
What types of people use accessibility features on websites?
- The vision-impaired (not just the blind!)
- The hearing-impared (not just the deaf!)
- People with older technology
- People with newer technology!
- People who buy online
- The learning and physically disabled
- People who can speak, but not read, your language
- People who work at big companies
- People who don't know they are using accessibility technology and just wonder why your website looks like garbage
All those people? Really? How?
The visually impaired
"The visually impaired" does not just consist of people who wake up and can't see their hand in front of their face—those that most of us traditionally think of as "blind." It also consists of people who wear glasses because they can't very well see up-close or far-away (we all get there, eventually!)... and people who don't wear glasses at all! Some people's vision is just a little bit off—they either don't know or refuse to acknowledge that they need glasses. Others may have a vision disorder which cannot be corrected with glasses or surgery. If the text on your website is too small they may either not be able to read it or, if your site is coded poorly, they may increase the font size only to completely ruin the look of your site. And you never know this because you didn't check and they just leave your ugly, unreadable site, never mentioning it to you!
The hearing impaired—or those who can't use speakers
Did you jump on the "audio/video" bandwagon? Did you spend good money having a beautiful video made for your website to introduce your product to potential customers? Did you also spend money to make sure that there is a well-written transcript of your audio available in an easily-seen location on your site? The deaf aren't the only ones who surf the Net silently. People who work in busy offices, surf in the library, or browse the web on a laptop while their spouse sleeps all may have the volume on their computers muted (not to mention the visually impaired, who can't even view the video at all!). Without a written transcript, you're missing out on sales or alienating visitors!
People with older technology
If you spend a lot of time online and own your own website or have friends or colleagues that do, chances are that most of the people you talk to on a daily basis have a computer that was manufactured sometime in the last five years or so and software to match. But there is an equally good chance that they—or maybe even you—have a brother-in-law or an aunt with a much older computer and more antiquated technology. According to w3schools.com, in April 2010, 7.9% of web users were using Internet Explorer 6.0, an application that was released in 2001 and replaced by IE 7 in 2006, which was in turn replaced by IE 8 in March 2009. IE 6 has what seems like an un-ending list of issues that prevent pages from displaying correctly. Virtuosi Media lists 25 of the dozens of identified Internet Explorer 6 bugs. There are many "IE6 Simulators" out there, but many of them don't take all of the bugs into consideration and send the wrong browser identifier, so you may think your site has no IE6 bugs when in fact it does. I recommend downloading IE Tester from my-debugbar.com; I have found this application does an excellent job of displaying the horrors of IE6 to those of us using more modern browsers.
People with newer technology
By "newer technology" I mean things like smart phones, iPads, and other mobile and non-traditional devices. The technology may be new, but the functionality of these new devices often lags behind the latest-and-greatest browser capabilities. For example, the default browser in my smart phone doesn't know how to display "curly" quotes and some other special, non-ASCII characters. These characters just don't show up at all, resulting in text that is extremely difficult to read. Many other devices are unable to utilize applications and display some technology such as Flash (update: On September 9, 2010 Apple loosened the restrictions on the development tools which are allowed to be used to create iOS applications for the iPhone and iPad).
People who buy online
Not everyone who buys online has the latest and greatest technology! People from all backgrounds—even the Amish—use the Internet. If you are selling a product online you want to make it available to the greatest audience possible, right? Don't limit yourself by making your website inaccessible!
The learning and physically disabled
Tommy Hilfiger, Bruce Jenner, Mike Lorenz, Danny Glover, Charles Schwab, Ingvar Kamprad, Erin Brockovich, Princess Beatrice, Orlando Bloom, Cher, Patrick Dempsey, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Rockefeller, Harry Belafonte, John Irving, Frida Kahlo, John Cougar Mellencamp, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, Stephen Hawking. What do these people have to do with each other or your website? They all have (or had) a learning or physical disability which may affect their ability to access your site—dyslexia, Parkinson's, paralysis, ALS, spina bifida, and other diseases can all affect an individual's ability to read or navigate a website.
People who can speak, but not read, your language
Some multi-lingual people are able to speak several languages but are not necessarily literate in the languages they can speak. A screen-reader can assist these individuals in "reading" a website in a language in which they are not literate.
People who work at big companies
Many large corporations place restrictions on what their employees are able to view online or purposely restrict upgrades of technology until years after a new version has come out—supposedly for the sake of security. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2004, out of 115,074,924 paid employees, 73,235,223 (66.36%) worked at companies with 100 or more employees.
People who just wonder why your site looks like garbage
Not everyone who uses features intended to make computers and the web more accessible even know that they are doing so, or they may not know that your site looks funny because their monitor is 15 years old. The elderly gentleman that lives down the street from you might be using an unusually large font in his browser that his grandson set up for him—many sites will look strange to him, including overlapping text and images—but he just thinks that most sites look weird because that's all he has ever known. Aunt Sadie might wonder why many sites require that she scroll horizontally in order to view the whole page—she has no idea that the problem is her ancient 640x480 monitor.
You can't please everyone... but you can make your site more accessible!
Unless your site is straight text, chances are that you won't be able to satisfy the needs of every single person, but by keeping the following basic guidelines in mind, you will be able to greatly expand the audience which can access your site.
- All images which include site content should have alt or longdesc tags that describe the content
- All images which are purely decorative should have empty (not missing!) alt tags
- The site should be fully legible if images are turned off in the browser
- Image maps should be accompanied by text links
- Audio/Video & Multimedia
- All audio should have transcripts available
- All video should have synchronized captions
- Be careful not to use any flashing elements that could cause seizures... or just annoy your visitors!
- A text-only option should be provided for all content that is displayed in a manner such as a Flash presentation
- All linked files should be accessible
- While you may provide important information through the use of color, it should not be the only way that information is conveyed. For example, don't just use red text for important information, make it bold as well or place a note next to it. Links should have some sort of marking—boldface, underscore, etc.—beyond just color to indicate that they are links.
- The site should be fully legible if CSS is turned off in the browser
- Tables used to display tabular data should have row and column headers where appropriate
- If tables are used for layout purposes, the resulting content should be displayed in the correct order when viewed in a text browser
- Honestly... just skip them, they're more trouble than they're worth!
- Input, textarea, and select elements should all be labeled appropriately
- Tab indices, if used, should be logical and match the order of the form elements
- Any sections of lengthy navigation or repetitive content should be "skippable"