Imagine you want to buy a pair of shoes from your favorite web store. The page loads blank. The form won’t submit. Unrecognizable errors and text litter the screen. After trying for 15 minutes, you give up. Now imagine the same experience every day on nearly every website you visit. Sadly, this is what much of the current web is like for people with disabilities.
When defining disabilities in terms of web accessibility, the following should be considered:
- Physical (essential tremor, loss of limbs, weakness)
- Auditory (deafness, hard-of-hearing, situational/temporary impairment)
- Visual (blindness, partial sight, color blindness)
- Cognitive and Neurological (seizure disorder, autism spectrum disorder)
Over the years, web practitioners have too often ignored the issue of accessibility. But it is too important to be overlooked – and today’s browsers make it easier than ever before to improve your site’s performance in this area.
As user experience consultants, our goal is to help users access content and functionality. We conduct studies in our usability lab and develop strategies to improve performance. More and more clients are coming to us with specific requirements regarding accessibility.
Perhaps you have a website that government employees will need to access and “Section 508 Compliance” has been requested. Or a considerable percentage of your visitors use screen readers. Or maybe you just want to be future-ready.
The accessibility issue isn’t going away. It will only become more significant considering:
- Initiatives such as “paperless” are pushing more users onto the web.
- The scope/interpretation of the law (Section 508, Americans with Disabilities Act, etc.) could affect the general web soon.
Mouth operated joystick
Image courtesy Univ. of Arizona Technology Access Center of Tucson
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Ideally, creating a plan for how to make your site accessible should start in the earliest phases of your project.
You should know what your accessibility goals are before you begin to create content or design. Why? Trying to make a site more accessible after launch is an extremely difficult task. Phrases like “it would be easier to start over” and “how many years will take?” may be heard. So, where do you start? Here are 5 things you can do right now to improve the accessibility of your site.
1. Assess your organization’s risk.
Are there potential legal issues in denying users with disabilities access to your website? Several lawsuits have settled, and many more are pending related to this issue. Know your organization’s legal responsibilities regarding web users with disabilities – check with your legal department.
2. Fix your code.
Bad markup leads to many accessibility issues including:
- Content displaying out of order or being ignored completely by screen readers
- Prohibitive load times as assistive technology devices attempt to read invalid code
Follow best practices:
- Do not add extra markup and images for older versions of Internet Explorer, instead, use progressive enhancement
- Create transcripts of your videos and flash pieces and provide links to this alternative content
- Add ALT and TITLE tags to links and images to give them additional context
- Consider Responsive Design as a development approach to handling various devices and resolutions
- Add Skip to links to avoid repetitive navigation
- Use label for markup for form elements
Quadriplegic using head wand
Image courtesy Joseph Lorenzo Hall
3. Validate code + Test with emulators.
Use the W3C validation service to eliminate many errors in your code. Test your site with screen readers and magnifiers to see how your site actually performs in terms of accessibility. With this information, you can more easily determine your weak spots, and come up with a remediation plan.
4. Analyze your site.
Having your website analyzed by a 3rd party service is an effective way to see exactly where your weak points are, and how they align with your stated accessibility goals. There are also firms that specialize in this task and will create reports and remediation plans for you.
5. Conduct a usability test.
Although less common than conventional usability tests, seeing your site in action with participants with disabilities will provide valuable insights, actionable recommendations, and leave a lasting impact on your approach to projects going forward. (Emily Eaton once tested a site with blind and visually-impaired people, and one of the participants found a typo via the screen reader! It was fascinating to watch.) Our in-house usability lab is high-tech and can support this kind of test.
An adaptive keyboard
Image courtesy Georgia State Univ.
By Mike McClure
Director of Design + Development
Mike has been involved with user experience work since the early nineties. His experience spans the gamut, from strategy to UX development and front-end coding, to accessibility and animated guided tour videos.View Mike's Bio
By Tony Johnson
Senior Front-end Developer
Tony has spent well over a decade building interactive applications. He collaborates in the full life cycle of projects – bringing a unique blend of technical savvy, creativity and strategic thinking to our user experience consulting services.View Tony's Bio