Web Accessibility: not just for disabled people

Accessibility Although this is another issue discussed many times, it keeps popping up from time to time. This is therefore my view on it.

The shortest summary I could probably give is this:

Accessibility on the web not only benefits people who are considered disabled, but a much wider, often aging, population.

Some people still claim that people with such needs don’t use the web (see further below). Watching people use the web using assitive technology may however, change perceptions.

What does accessibility mean?

A decent article by Jonathan Snook asked What does accessibility mean and summarised his thoughts as follows:

As a web professional, I try to build sites that reach the largest audience possible. Every design decision has a consequence and those consequences have to be weighed against the goals of the site. Accessibility is just usability after all. We’re not designing and building these sites for ourselves, we’re doing it for other people, too. While it may seem easier to just ignore whole segments of the population, for the vast majority of us building web sites, we already have the tools and knowledge out there.

… So, let me try and boil this down into some bullet points:

  • Accessibility is usability. We’re all just trying to make things that people can use.
  • Basic accessibility isn’t hard. We should be doing stuff like alt-text, making sure form fields are labelled, etc.
  • Don’t expect perfection. It’s possible to get it wrong, especially as more layers of interactivity is added. It’s not a bad thing. Just learn from it.
  • Just because we can’t, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. By this I mean, just because we might not be able to cater to everybody doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all.

Jonathan Snook, What does accessibility mean, snook.ca, November 27, 2007

He noted (as did some of the commenters on his blog) that many aspects of accessibility can be achieved simply through better markup, or more meaningful, semantic markup.

While some additional technology layers such as JavaScript and AJAX can complicate matters, it doesn’t always have to.

Sometimes effort is needed. Other times, these technologies can actually help, as accessibility isn’t just about blind people, and isn’t just about when JavaScript is turned off, though these scenarios can be important in themselves.

As an aside, it is interesting that estimates of how many people have JavaScript turned off vary from around 5 to 8% of users, depending who you read. That is a large percentage, often larger than users of browsers such as Safari, depending on your site.

So, from some perspectives accessibility can also mean different technology configurations — thinking of Google as a “blind” user may also offer a different perspective!

“Blind people don’t use the web”

Snook’s article linked to Jeremy Keith’s short post on the reaction of some people in response to the lawsuit being brought against Target for preventing blind people from shopping on it.

The reactions were along the lines of “blind people don’t use the internet”, and other such arguments that the web standards movement addressed years ago (but, as with many issues, it still keeps coming up).

A self-fulfilling argument

Interestingly, such arguments as those above are self-defeating, or a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  1. Argue that people with accessibility needs don’t use the web;
  2. Therefore create web sites which pose a barrier for such people;
  3. Therefore argue that such people don’t use the internet.

And so, you can easily get stuck in a recursive loop without any exit condition.

Assistive technology can help many people, not just those considered disabled

In 2003, Microsoft commissioned Forrester Research to conduct a study on accessible computer technology and found that,

57 percent of current working-age computer users may benefit from accessible technology because of mild to severe vision, hearing, dexterity, speech and cognitive difficulties and impairments. As the U.S. population continues to age, the number of people who experience these impairments will increase, and more people will likely turn to accessible technology to mitigate the effects of their changing physical abilities.

New Research Study Shows 57 Percent of Adult Computer Users Can Benefit From Accessible Technology, Microsoft, February 2, 2004 (Emphasis added)

Now, that is quite some time back and limited to the US working population, but shows that accessibility isn’t just people having official disabilities, but includes a much wider population.

Further, considering changing abilities as people age, and that in many Western societies in particular an aging population is likely to increase, then these things have greater significance for people creating software, including web sites.

Seeing people use assitive technologies on the web

In addition, actually seeing people who do have special needs attempt to use the internet is interesting.

Roger Johansson posted links to videos of people using assistive technology, and not just screen readers.

Web Accessibility In Mind, or WebAIM, also posted some videos showing how simple markup choices can affect accessibility of HTML data tables for screen reader users.

I have also been to the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London to talk to and watch blind people using retail e-commerce web sites. It was a good experience. At one point for example, a particular site they visited had an unannounced pop-up, which was incredibly disorienting for the user (who was a reasonably seasoned JAWS screen reader user). It was good to see that when a window popped up from an action, such as clicking a button or link worked without problems (because it was the result of a user action, not an unexpected automatic action as part of a page load). So, not all pop ups are bad 🙂

At that same session (this was back in 2005), they used a site we had creating using modern web standards, headings, (some of which were moved off screen, as they were not needed for the visual design, but were important as part of the document), lists for menu items, tables only for tabular data, and so forth. We didn’t mention any of this to the screen reader users, but they commented that they had no problems on such a page, and the use of headings was really handy.

More information

The point is that simple and appropriate markup choices go a long way to provide accessible content and it may help more people than you realise.

The W3C’s web accessibility initiative provides guidelines for further accessibility and there are of course other techniques that can help when using more advanced techniques, such as DOM manipulation via JavaScript, or AJAX.

Here are some examples and articles for further reading:

3 thoughts on “Web Accessibility: not just for disabled people

  1. Thanks Shazia. I’d note that CAPTCHA can pose accessibility problems, especially for blind users and those with visual impairments. Many are offering sound recording alternatives and these can be useful, but also cumbersome.

    However, it is understandable that people are resorting to this because of hackers, criminals and others trying to abuse systems.

    Its a hard balance to get right I guess.

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