If you are not a person with a disability, then you probably take it for granted that you can easily control a mouse, type on a keyboard, or click to select options when browsing online. Now imagine doing these same online tasks without being able to see, or without being able to move your hands. Suddenly, the web is looking like a completely different place – one which is full of hurdles and limited access.
Web accessibility for people with disabilities has been a concern since the birth of the web, and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was formed in 1997 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to establish standards for web accessibility. However, only now is web accessibility really getting any major attention. Most countries still don’t have any laws about web accessibility, which means that people with disabilities often cannot access and use websites, including much-needed services on public sector websites such as for healthcare.
If you want to improve website accessibility on your site, you can start by learning about the WAI guidelines and using tools to check your website’s accessibility. However, this can only take you so far. To really improve web accessibility, you need to understand how people with disabilities use the web. Only then will you be able to make the meaningful changes which allow all people equal access to your website.
Here are just some of the many tools which people with disabilities use to access the web and overcome the challenge of limited accessibility found across most websites.
Screen Readers: A screen reader is a software tool which reads text on the screen with a speech synthesizer or (less frequently) translates it into Braille. But screen reader technology isn’t as simple as reading every single word on the screen (most web users only read about 20% of what is on the page, so imagine how annoying it would be if screen readers read everything from the advertisements to the footer!). Good screen reader technology will give visually impaired people options to easily control what is read, such as by finding strings of text on the screen, reading just a line of text, or reading just text in bold or certain color text. Some popular screen readers include:
Braille Keyboards:A Braille keyboard is very different than a standard QWERTY keyboard. There are 8 keys which are used to compose the Braille letters. Of course, there are standard QWERTY keyboards which have Braille letters overlaid on them, but Braille keyboards are made in a way which makes navigation and locating the cursor much easier for visually-impaired people.
Refreshable Braille Displays: This is a type of Braille keyboard which also has output options. It contains small pins which can be raised to form the Braille letters. Displays range from 18 to 84 cells. A cursor allows the user to select which text to translate, and the pins are refreshed throughout the reading process. Braille displays are fairly expensive but are good options for people who use the computer a lot, need to speak and type at the same time, or who are deaf-blind and would not be able to use a Screen Reader.
Screen Magnifiers: Screen magnifying technology helps people who are visually impaired but not blind to view information on a computer screen. There are numerous types of screen magnification technology, such as external devices which act like magnifying glasses outside of the screen to advanced software which is installed on the computer. The best screen magnifying technology doesn’t just increase the size of the information on the screen, but has functions like reducing glare, increasing contrast, and improving cursor tracking.
Sip and Puff Systems:Have you ever seen a person in a wheelchair controlling movement by breathing into a straw? This is a puff-and-sip system. The technology has been adapted to allow people with physical disabilities, such as paralyzed people, to also access the computer. The device works similarly to a joystick, but one which is controlled with breath. It recognizes sips or puffs and translates these into commands such as mouse clicks or keyboard characters.
Hands-Free Mouse Tracking: There are now many truly-amazing ways which physically-impaired people can control a cursor without having to rely on a mouse or keyboard commands. One option is FaceMouse, which turns a standard web camera into a mouse operator. It does this by recognizing face or head movements and translating them into commands, like clicks. Basically, you get to use your head movements as a joystick. FaceMouse even lets users set certain movements to certain commands, like “Open Mouth” to “Enter Key.”
Another option for hands-free mouse tracking is to use Lomak, which is a light-operated mouse and keyboard. A small device with a laser pointer is worn on the head (or, alternatively, on the arm). By moving the head to point the laser light at various points on the keyboard or screen, users can control the cursor. The Lomak keyboard is also controlled by the laser light, and has an option for voice-controlled confirmation of commands.
A third option is EyeGaze Edge system. This truly-cool system works by having a specialized video camera mounted below the screen. The video camera observes the user’s eyes to determine where the user is looking. The user then operates the system by looking at special keys which are displayed on the control screen.
Voice Controls: Voice control software includes programs which convert Speech to Text, and also allow you to command the computer with your voice. One of the most well-known and feature-rich program is Dragon. It lets you enter text anywhere you find a text box and you can even tell it where to put the cursor. The tool isn’t perfect though and physically-disabled people will need to rely on other tools such as switch activations to fully access the web.
Bear in mind that none of these assistive technology tools are perfect, and they can be costly. Further, in order for many of the tools to work properly, the website much be designed in a way which allows accessibility. If you don’t put meaningful ALT text on images, then even the best screen reader won’t help blind people understand the image. If you don’t space Buttons well apart, then even people using the best hands-free mouse are going to have some wrong clicks. The bottom line? Website owners need to make sure their sites are designed in a way which doesn’t just meet accessibility guidelines, but in a way which allows all people to equally access and use the web.
Whether you want to improve your website accessibility because of legal reasons, to expand reach, or simply because it is the moral thing to do, it is imperative that you have a plan for how you will proceed. It is generally best to think about accessibility when you first build your website or during a major redesign. However, it is possible to get an existing website up to compliance. Here we will talk about the two approaches you can take for your website accessibility strategy.
Web accessibility isn’t something that you can fix once on your site and then forget about. To make sure your website is compliant and stays compliant, you will have to incorporate new policies into your overall website strategy. However, not all companies and organizations have the resources to initiate large web accessibility projects. These initiatives can be left until a website redesign. Right now, you can focus on fixing what you can. A website which is 50% accessible is better than a website which isn’t accessible at all!
With the short-term approach to web accessibility, you will follow these three basic steps:
Remember that web accessibility requires clear policies and a long-term strategy. Even if you can’t implement this strategy now, it is something that you should be thinking about.
With this approach, the goal is to build a website which is accessible now and will remain accessible in the future. The strategy can be broken down into three parts with multiple steps under each.
Congratulations! By reading this and learning about accessibility, you have already started this part of your accessibility strategy. Build on this momentum. Here are some steps to take to ensure your strategy gets off on the right foot:
Before you set out fixing the errors you found on your website, you need to make a plan. We’ve provided a list of steps you can take to build your accessibility plan.
Remember that web accessibility isn’t something that you do once. After implementing your accessibility plan, you will need to regularly review it for success. Here are some steps you can take during implementation.
Even though web accessibility isn’t a new concept, there hasn’t been much discourse about it over the years and the topic is often widely ignored as part of website development and strategy. Because of this, there are still a lot of pervasive misconceptions about web accessibility. Some of these misconceptions actually hold businesses and organizations back from implementing accessibility policies.
It is important to realize that some of the web accessibility misconceptions do have a basis in the truth. For example, it used to be very difficult to create a complex, attractive website design which was also accessible. However, with all of the advancements in web technology over the years, this is no longer the case. Regardless of the size or scope of a website, there is no reason it shouldn’t be made accessible to all. Let’s address each of the main accessibility misconceptions one by one to make sure none of them are holding you back from implementing effective accessibility policies.
Contrary to common belief, people with disabilities do access the internet. In fact, they often rely on the internet much more than the general population. For example, people who are paralyzed often rely on online shopping to meet many of their basic needs because it is easier to order online than to go shopping at malls, supermarkets, etc.
The statistics back this up: approximately 20% of online users have some sort of disability. This is a huge number!
Another misconception is for people to think, “People with disabilities don’t use my website.” In some cases, this may seem like a logical assumption. If your website sells skateboards, for example, then you probably aren’t targeting blind customers. However, you don’t want to discount the woman who is blind and shopping for a skateboard for her niece. And one quick YouTube search will show you how many mobility-challenged people are participating in sports like skateboarding. Never assume that someone isn’t going to be interested in your website because of a disability.
In the past, it was very difficult to make a complex web design which was also accessible. For example, screen readers of the past only read across the page. So, a multi-column page would result in accessibility issues.
As a result, many websites which focused on accessibility (such as the websites to major disability organizations) were very boring. This led to the belief that all accessible websites had to be boring.
Luckily, this is no longer the case. Assistive technologies like screen readers have improved. Web technologies like CSS, browsers, and XHTML have also improved. Accessibility now depends on having good code and simple design. And simple design does not mean boring design!
In fact, it is nearly impossible to differentiate between accessibility and good user experience. The same design components which make your website usable to non-users with disabilities – such as clear navigation and consistent design – will also make it accessible to users with disabilities.
Text-only websites don’t have any images or graphics, and usually just have a single-column layout with little use of color and very simple navigation. Because many of the common accessibility issues have to do with images or complex design, it may seem like having a text-only version of the site is a good solution for all your accessibility issues. This couldn’t be further from the truth though.
The first issue with the text-only approach is that it assumes people with disabilities are using text-only browsers. In actuality, people with disabilities are using the same browsers as people without disabilities. If you build a separate version of the website with just text, you are probably going to lose some of the non-text functionality and features which are found on the main version of the website. The text-only version of the website may be accessible, but it is not comparable to the main website. People with disabilities shouldn’t be deprived of anything your website has to offer because of how they access the website!
Even if your text-only version of the website is comparable to the main version, you are still segregating users. Think back to the “Separate but Equal” laws in the United States. If we do this with disability access to the internet, we are separating a group of people from the public and stigmatizing them. Further, we know that separate did not mean equal. If you have two versions of your website, chances are that the text-only version isn’t going to get updated as frequently as the main version.
Another issue with text-only versions of websites is that they only address issues for people with sight-related disabilities. Having a text-only website does not mean that it will be accessible to people with other disabilities! Considering how diverse internet users are, you want to make sure your website is in compliance to standards that make it accessible to everyone.
Those are just some of the issues with having a text-only version of website. Other issues include:
As you can see, it is better to make your main website accessible rather than trying to make a separate alternative for users with disabilities.
Getting started with accessibility can seem like a big task, but it is by no means difficult. The bulk of the work is going to be in educating yourself and staff about accessibility and taking the time to create clear policies and procedures. Investing in a tool like Monsido can help reduce the burden and take the guesswork out of accessibility. While the tool does mean another expense, it is more affordable than hiring an extra staffer to handle accessibility issues.
The benefits gained by improving accessibility – both in terms of legal compliance and website improvement – are well worth this investment. In fact, improving accessibility can pay off financially by increasing your audience and reducing future need for website maintenance because of good coding and website policies.
A lot of web accessibility has to do with good coding, so the bulk of the task does rest on developers. However, there is a lot more to accessibility than just code. Editors, designers, and managers also all need to be thinking about accessibility.
Note that accessibility is not a bunch of separate issues or tasks, with each team worrying only about their own tasks. There are many interdependent aspects of web accessibility. For example, it is the responsibility of developers to make sure all data tables have the proper tag, but it is up to web editors to give a description of the data in the
When talking about web accessibility, many people immediately think about sight impairments and screen readers. Yes, this is a major focus of web accessibility and will likely become more important as the population ages and faces vision problems. However, blindness and sight impairments are only one part of accessibility.
The disabilities which need to be addressed in web accessibility can be divided into 5 major groups:
People with these types of disabilities can face very different problems when accessing the web. Simply making your website accessible to screen readers is not a solution that ensures accessibility to all. Remember, web accessibility is about creating ONE web experience for everyone – regardless of ability or disability.
Need help making your website accessible? Monsido website accessibility tool can help.