Seven Easy Steps Toward Web Site Accessibility


Here are a few easy steps toward making your web site accessible

by Ken Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

You may have been put off by misconceptions.

Someone may have told you that the principles of accessibility are so abstract, complex, or elusive that they're hard to understand.

Or that it's very hard to make a web site accessible, involving extremely advanced knowledge and coding.

Or that it will cost a lot of money.

None of these is true but each has the evidence-resistant persistence of an urban legend.

The issues for web site accessibility are different than for email accessibility, and if this is a new area for you, it's easy to be overwhelmed by how much has been written--the laws, regulations, standards, books, and other documents created to help make web sites accessible to all. Some of the other pages on this site provide brief descriptions of these documents and links to them.

In this section, I've taken some of the most commonly mentioned barriers to web site access for people with disabilities and described what you can do to identify them in web site design and eliminate these barriers. I've tried to present them in a way that gives you a sense of why they cause problems and how they might be experienced by some of the many people with disabilities who use the web and depend on it for information.

  1. Try out your web site's pages and functions. . .without using your mouse. There are many reasons--e.g., paralysis, muscle or nerve damage, missing limbs--that someone may not use a mouse to navigate a web site. Some may use a standard keyboard; others may use assistive technologies (e.g., virtual keyboards or devices that control computers through head- or eye-movements). Make sure the site's navigation and functions can be controlled by a keyboard--using function keys, tabs, etc.--as well as a mouse.

  2. Use either your monitor's hardware controls or the software controlling your monitor to make it show only black-and-white. Is any important information lost? If your web site conveys information by using different colors, people who are color-blind may be lost. If you use color to convey information, provide additional cues for those who can't distinguish colors.

  3. Find out what you web site is like without the images. You could go to the free Lynx viewer and type in your web site's URL or download a free Lynx browser for mac or PC listed in the section on Assistive Technologies and view your site through that text browser. Many web pages use images to convey important information. Some present links in the form of images, and you must use the images to navigate through the site. Some have charts, graphs, icons, maps, photographs, drawings, figures, and other visual ways of communicating information. Visitors who are blind or have other severe visual impairments may use technology that reads aloud a web site's text or translates it into braille. They may have no access to information presented in images unless you also present it in text format. This alternate text is simply inserted into the code for the site; it won't be visible on the web site but assistive technology can speak it aloud or translate it into braille when it comes to the image.

  4. If you have any data tables, ask a friend to read aloud the contents of each table to you to see if the table makes sense without looking at it. A table with 5 columns and 5 rows, for example, will have 25 individual data cells--as a screen reader is reading aloud number after number after number, it is easy to forget exactly which row and column each cell is associated with. Most of us have trouble remembering which row and column each number goes in unless it's a *very* small table (e.g., 2 x 2). Simply adding code that will associate each individual cell with its column label and row label removes this barrier. The code will not appear on the screen but will be read by a screen reader or similar assistive technology.

  5. If there are any links on your site, determine whether each link is clearly identified. Many screen readers and other assitive technologies are able to go through a web page reading aloud or translating into braille only the links, skipping all other material. Do the words forming the link make sense out of context? It is not uncommon to find web pages providing many different links, each of which is labeled with the word "here" (as in the following sentence in which only the last word is underlined as the link: "To find out more about this topic, please click here.").This barrier is easily removed by using descriptive names for links. You can also use a "title" tag to tell a screen reader or other assitive technology what the link is.

  6. Turn off your computer's speakers and explore the site. Is any information missing--spoken instructions, narration to a video, chimes or other sounds indicating a process is complete, etc.? If so, this information can be conveyed in additional ways (providing written instructions, subtitles to the video, etc.).

  7. Check to find out if any information is presented in only in PDF. It is important to be aware of the kind of accessibility issues that PDF files involve. Here is a brief excerpt from attorney Cynthia Waddell's chapter "U.S. Web Accessibility Law in Depth" from the 2002 book Constructing Accessible Web Sites:" [It] was the posting of City Council documents in PDF that brought an ADA complaint to the City of San Jose. Today, although Adobe has taken great strides to ensure that a PDF document has structure for assistive technology to access, there are still difficulties, especially in the conversion of complex documents to accessible HTML. Recognizing that there are benefits to having a print version of a document in PDF, the US Department of Justice recommends that if a document is posted in PDF, that an accessible version be posted as well: '. . . Agencies that choose to publish web-based documents in pdf should simultaneously publish the same documents in another more accessible format, such as HTML.'"

Other pages in this section--e.g., Web Accessibility Verifiers, Articles on Web Accessibility, the ADA, and Civil Rights, and Articles on Accessibility in Psychology Graduate Education & Practice--present more detailed information. Three books I've found exceptionally useful and recommend highly are Building Accessible Websites by Joe Clark and published in 2003 by New Riders (ISBN-0-7357-1150-X), Constructing Accessible Web Sites, edited by Jim Thatcher and his colleagues and published in 2002 by Glasshaus (ISBN 1-904151-00-0) and Web Accessibility for People With Disabilities by Michael Paciello, published in 2000 by CMP Books (ISBN: 1-929629-08-7).

A final note on email accessibility: Web sites present different accessibility issues than email. Email written in plain text (also called "ascii") is accessible. To ensure accessible email, the essential step is to avoid using html background colors, html fixed-size or fixed-color fonts, graphics, and other changes from plain text that can block access for many people with disabilities. In some cases these decorations can over-ride the settings that people with visual impairments use to make email accessible. In other cases these decorations can prevent various kinds of assistive technology from adequately processing email. Avoiding these and similar html decorations when using email--whether with individuals, on a listserv, or in other contexts--is an essential step in making email accessible to all.

NOTE: Ken Pope holds the copyright to this article. All rights reserved.


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