Designing Accessible Websites

For more than 40,000,000 in the US the vast majority of Websites are either completely or partially inaccessible.

The idea of a Website that excludes Latinos or African Americans is unthinkable, yet Americans with disabilities are constantly faced with Websites that don’t take their needs into account. Fortunately, many of the world’s most popular Websites, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, and Yahoo! are working hard to become accessible to disabled users, but there are still many more sites out there that have a long way to go.

No one intentionally creates websites that are inaccessible. Since the point of having a Website is to be able to reach people and most Web designers would do anything to reach 40,000,000 people. But for many developers and designers, the idea of creating a Website that is easily accessible can be incredibly overwhelming.

Developers seem to think that they can’t use the new cool technologies simply because they’re not accessible as opposed to looking at these new technologies and making them accessible. So it’s as if people don’t see an accessible interface as an opportunity to make a better interface, but rather as something that is preventing you from doing what you really want to do.

In fact, however, accessibility isn’t at all at odds with attractiveness or performance. An accessible Website is a well designed Website and one that far more people than the disabled can enjoy. Websites designed with accessibility in mind also work better with dial up connections and hand held devices such as iPhones and BlackBerries. As an added bonus, they’re also usually better indexed by search engines such as Google.

It’s noteworthy that there may even be negative consequences of ignoring accessibility. Target recently paid out more than $6,000,000 as part of a class action lawsuit filed by the National Federation for the Blind. The retailer’s Website could not be used by blind users, and the court ruled that this violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, no one should be strong armed into designing an accessible Website out of fear of being sued. The lesson to be taken from the lawsuit is that Target lost a lot more than just $6,000,000 million: It also lost millions of potential customers, not to mention the respect of a lot of people, disabled and able bodied alike.

The right attitude is to approach Web design, particularly with the goal of accessibility, with a passion for originality and an open mind. Sometimes setting boundaries can result in you becoming more innovative.
As a designer, the constraints that you are under are key. Without constraints, it is very easy to get lost. You need to use the constraints to your advantage.

The website BBC Ouch! Is an example of a successful, attractive, website that works within the restrictions of accessibility. The website, which centers around everyday disability issues, is an example of the sort of strong Web designs that everyone, especially the disabled, can appreciate.

At first glance, the website looks no different from most others. It’s visually appealing and is rich with media such as podcasts and images; However, the website also offers high contrast and text only versions that are unobtrusive but easy to locate locations. These sorts of accessibility friendly options are prevalent throughout the website.

The website provides a thoughtful service to blind visitors that many Websites would neglect to include. Clearly, if you take the website as an example, accessibility and attractive functionality are not mutually exclusive.

The more unfortunate thing is that inaccessible websites are not designed that way on purpose. It’s the result of a lack of awareness and knowledge. People are just ignorant of just how easy it is to make it work for everybody. All it takes is a lack of awareness and thought and things can go horribly wrong.

In an effort to keep things from going astray, it’s important to know who you should you are designing for. You need to consider people with vision problems, including those who have weak eyesight, color blindness, or complete blindness. The blind may use hardware that converts online text to Braille or screen readers, however, web users who are farsighted can simply use screen magnification software to enlarge onscreen text. Enlarged text, particularly links, is also helpful for people who have a stroke, MS, Parkinson’s disease, or cerebral palsy, since they cannot use a mouse with precision. Some disabled users may not be able to use a mouse at all. Instead they us speech recognition software, and single switch access devices.

Another major group to keep in mind is the hard of hearing, who relies on written transcripts, sign language, and closed captioning to fully enjoy video and audio. It’s also important to remember that people who are susceptible to seizures may not be able to view flashing screens, and that those with dyscalculia and dyslexia may have difficulty reading the content that is provided.

The most helpful additions you can make to your website are text only and high contrast versions, as well as full transcripts of any audio and other multimedia that appears. Although it’s helpful to understand the different kinds of disabilities your Web page may encounter, don’t think about designing for accessibility as a checklist of types of disabilities.

It’s way more than that. One of the most important things to remember is that making a website properly accessible is that it makes it easier for everyone to use.

The reason for this is that accessible websites operate on the principals of proper Web design. It’s all about flexibility and structure. If your site works without JavaScript or a style sheet, while providing a proper structure, then you have taken a great step towards a good product.

This means that your website needs to use (X)HTML that is semantically correct for content, structure, and CSS for your layout. The (X)HTML content should be grouped in a coherent fashion and should be structured logically. This is especially important for people who use screen readers, which read page text in order and get confused by bad (X)HTML such as designs that are table based. Screen readers also can’t read JavaScript or Flash, so you should make sure that all of your text and links are accessible by means of good, old fashioned (X)HTML.

It is important that if you have something that refreshes a page, have a real link that points to a real document, and not just some random Flash or JavaScript movie file.

There is another basic design that tends to get lost in the fray is the use of alternative tags for graphics and images. You should always incorporate context that is appropriate for your images and the text that surrounds them. That doesn’t mean that you should include some vague description that slows down your narration, but it’s good practice to make sure your text and pictures work in conjunction with each other.

Similarly, never try to compensate for weak content with superfluous visual elements. There’s no substitute for well written, clear content. Even without good writing abilities, there’s no excuse for errors in spelling. Spell checking is not only a good idea in general, but it’s also important to remember that typos can mess up screen readers, which obfuscates your meaning even more.

Perhaps the most important design tool to remember when designing for accessibility is progressive enhancement. When you take away the CSS, the JavaScript, the high level layers, and the high level interaction it should still work. It’s not really a hard thing to do, but it requires thinking about it from the beginning and building it in that layered form.

It’s not all that hard. These design practices are not difficult and they won’t hurt you. It’ll actually make your life easier. You just have to have an open mind about it.

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