The Internet appears to be continuing to play a bigger role in our everyday lives, and as it does, Web Accessibility is becoming more and more important. From road signs to buildings, many things in our daily lives are made to be widely accessible to people with disabilities.
However, things like buildings haven’t always been built with accessibility in mind, and it has often taken legislation to change building codes to mandate certain guidelines.
As the Internet grows, and especially because it’s still a relatively new thing, it’s bound to run into similar challenges regarding accessibility, just like the other things in our day-to-day world.
Making the Web accessible for everyone shouldn’t have to be something that’s only done because of a law though.
It opens up a previously untapped user base, and can help to increase customer loyalty, among other benefits. Making your site more accessible makes it easier for everyone to use, and it can often improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
When developers think about what we can do to make the Web more accessible, a big focus is on people who use pieces of software called screen readers. Sight plays such a big role on the Internet, so it seems only natural that screen readers have come about to help people with visual impairment access the Web.
Other assistive technologies exist for people with motor impairment, but these are often pieces of expensive hardware that may be custom tailored to an individual. For those with hearing difficulty, it’s up to the content provider to supply a transcript.
The job of a screen reader is to interpret the code of a page (HTML) and read it to a user. How can a program make sense of a web page though? Well, HTML isn’t just the look of a web page; HTML has meaning and semantics. Web pages can be written many different ways, yet they can look visually identical. Looking the same isn’t good enough for a screen reader though, it’s important to write well structured HTML that conveys the proper meaning.
As a web developer, writing good HTML is just the first step. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), that works on developing Web standards, has a Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to aid developers in creating a more accessible Internet. They have numerous resources on their site, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (WAI-ARIA).
I find the WCAG are a great place to start.
These guidelines offer advice such as always providing alternative text for any imagery you may have, so that it may be changed into different formats as needed.
For those that don’t use a screen reader, but have visual impairment, it’s recommended to use large enough fonts with plenty of contrast against the background color, so that things can be distinguished. Some users have trouble using a computer mouse, so it’s a good idea to make things accessible solely via the keyboard.
The list of recommendations goes on, but I think the idea is pretty clear. For more advanced things like dynamic pages and complex Web applications, there’s the WAI-ARIA (which is still largely in development). Regardless of what kind of things you normally do as a Web developer, I would urge you to check it out, there’s lots of interesting content.
I find that thinking about accessibility while developing Web pages often makes my life easier. When I am faced with a decision, it’s easy to pick the more accessible approach. This end result of creating something highly accessible is that, more often than not, it is a better end result for everyone not just those with disabilities.
Have you thought about accessibility at all? If not, I urge you to. It’ll help you and those you cater to, and you’ll probably feel good about it too.