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Web Accessibility: What You Should Know

Overview

There is a lot of talk these days with regard to proper development practices and accessible web design. If you don’t think any of this applies to you or your website, you probably don’t understand exactly what this is all about. Web Accessibility refers to the practice of creating websites that will be useable for people of any ability or disability. Many things come into play when accounting for a person’s eye sight, mobility, auditory and logic skills.

Too many web development companies overlook the importance of coding a website in meaningful HTML. Utilities for blind users, such as text-to-speech software, make use of alternate text for images and properly named links. Another downside to overlooking proper HTML lies with the robots search engines send out to read your website. These computers that browse the internet by themselves can learn a lot more about your website, and get a lot deeper into your site when they aren’t confused by poor coding practices.

Many people have difficulty controlling a mouse with precision, and can become frustrated while attempting to select a small link. Web designers need to allow for enlargeable text sizes and create larger clickable areas whenever possible. Links should always be styled and colored different than body text so that even color blind users can quickly locate the links on any web page. Pages can even be coded in a fashion that allows them to be navigated without a mouse or keyboard should your audience be likely to require this.

No website should ever rely solely on a video or audio component to convey information. Problems here extend farther than those who are hard of hearing or have poor eyesight. You are relying on certain hardware and or software to be installed on the visitor’s computer. If a user has no speakers, or if they are turned off, they could miss your important message or even be annoyed if they were listening to something else. Visitors are valuable and you should never do anything to encourage them to leave your site quickly.

Aside from looking tacky, flashing effects are to be avoided to ensure those sensitive to seizures are not at risk. Content is both more effective and better understood by those with developmental and learning disabilities when it is written in plain text.

The Web Accessibility Initiative

The WAI started in 1999 by the World Wide Web Consortium and is viewed as the standard set of guidelines for creating accessible websites. Although there has been some criticism of their guidelines they have been working since 2003 to release the second edition of accessibility standards which will be much more technology-neutral. This will leave more room for interpretation and adaptability.

The guide goes into great depth on how to create accessible web content and includes a checkpoint summary by topic and priority. They discuss important issues and provide design solutions for a number of scenarios that cause conflicts.

The Future of Accessibility

We are at a point now where there is no doubt accessibility is important, in fact it is already a legal requirement in certain countries. Try searching Google for anything along the lines of ‘web accessibility’ and you’ll see the vast amounts of information available. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’ve come a long way over the last few years.

With more and more websites being populated with user generated content, a simple set of guidelines for web designers is becoming less useful. It is impossible to monitor this content for accessibility as it is being created at such a rapid rate. We are also seeing new assistive technologies that support elements like JavaScript, PDF’s and Flash which will create many new options for websites that remain fully accessible.

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About the Author: Written by Sean Doering, Creative Director of the Toronto web design company LinxSmart. They can be found at http://www.linxsmart.com.

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