Why accessibility matters
The web has a unique capacity to break down boundaries of distance, language and knowledge upon which we have come to depend. Creating websites that are accessible makes the web available to everyone; it is the right thing to do.
Independence and freedom
People with disabilities face real obstacles that many of us take for granted, like getting to and around shopping malls. The web has enormous potential for disabled people; digital information is a far more speech-enhancing medium compared to print. It offers a full range of information, services, entertainment and social interaction; enabling people with disabilities to enjoy more independence by helping them with many things they could not otherwise do. The Internet has opened up a whole new world for them, like:
- Audio books, music
- Crossword puzzles
- Stock trading
The audience for accessibility features range from people who are blind or visually-impaired, learning-disabled or have mobility-impairments.
Blind, visually-impaired, low-vision
Of all the disabilities affected by computer use, visual impairment is the most significant. People who are blind typically use screen readers, a program that reads aloud website page text with an electronic voice. Some users may use refreshable Braille display devices which convert the text on the page to Braille; reading Braille helps to confirm something they have heard or to check their own spelling.
Screen readers have features and functionality apart from simply reading the text on a page, like pulling up a ‘links list’ dialogue box with all the links on the page. Just like sighted users scan website content visually, screen-reader users scan with their ears.
People with low-vision use screen magnification software, which greatly magnifies the text and interface. To see an entire page requires a lot of scrolling vertically and horizontally. Screen magnifiers allow users to switch between colour and black and white, as well as inverting colours to achieve better contrast.
Users with milder visual impairments simply use the browser’s controls to adjust the font size or change colours.
Depending on the severity of the physical disability, these users will have limited or no ability to use a mouse and will often navigate using a keyboard and use alternative mice. Some users will access websites through voice recognition software.
A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and affects perception, processing and understanding of information. Learning disability is often confused with dyslexia and mental health problems. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty because, unlike learning disability, it does not affect intellect. In terms of the web, they are the hardest to accommodate.
Making websites accessible
Almost anything on a web page can be made fully, or partially, accessible. Incorporating access features into web pages is barely noticeable; accessible enhancements have no effect on visual design. By simply structuring content better and adding access features to pages, websites are open to more people. The majority of disabled computer users require adaptive or assistive technology like screen readers and screen magnifiers that eliminate barriers to using a computer. Some disabled computer users do nothing different from non-disabled people.
Accessible content is also findable content
Search engines are, after all, blind users - external link, indexing tens of millions of websites, giving out recommendations in the form of search results without seeing any pictures, graphics or page layouts.
Improving accessibility improves usability for all users
An accessible website with good navigation, less web code and a consistent, logical structure will not only benefit those with a visual or physical disability but will also help content to be more easily indexed by search engines.