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March 18, 2010

Why You Should Care About Web Site Accessibility

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During a recent educational seminar conducted by a friend and business leader, the dialogue turned to the importance of web site accessibility. Incredulous, a seminar attendee inquired, “Why in the world would a blind person need a computer?” In the equally incredulous and reproachful commentary that followed, it occurred to me that there are probably a great many otherwise very bright and capable individuals who wonder the same thing. If you have never been exposed to someone who is blind and who makes efficient use of assistive technology to accomplish tasks, then how would you have the slightest idea what is possible? A few short minutes with a search engine can reveal a universe you might not have known existed. Sometimes, the truth is that we must admit that we don’t even know what we don’t know.

If you are a business owner, you might agree that the most rudimentary business model would be to sell as much as you can to as many as you can. With that in mind, it would make little sense to prohibit the entire population of Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Missouri from patronizing your business. Yet, that is analogous to what would happen if you overlook the benefits of making your web site accessible to people who have vision loss.

According to the statistical snapshots taken by the National Center For Health Statistics, in the 2006 National Health Interview Survey (cdc.gov/nchs), approximately 21.2 million people in the U. S. have significant vision loss. In this case, the definition of vision loss is a broad one, but it includes individuals who have reported that they have trouble seeing even with glasses or contacts, as well as individuals who reported that they cannot see anything at all. The survey did not, however, include anyone under the age of 18, nor did it include individuals living in institutionalized housing, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Of the 21 plus million, a significant portion are regular computer users. About 8 million have a post-secondary education, and 14 million or so have a household income of over $20,000 per year. Approximately 9 million are baby boomers.

Computer users who are blind or who have low vision make use of assistive technology that enables their computer to talk to them. This is achieved either by using the accessibility features already built into the operating system, or by using a software program called a screen reader, or a combination. A screen reader is a program that translates on-screen text into speech. This speech can approximate a natural human voice, or it can sound more synthesized or “robotic.” Whether a text-to-speech voice sounds more or less lifelike is a matter of personal preference, but the newest synthesized voices are fully digitized and sound very natural.

The simplest way to describe how a screen reader works is to say that the software “speaks” aloud everything that is happening on the screen that a sighted person could see. This includes, but is not limited to, pull-down menus, dialog boxes, error messages, icons on the desktop, window title bars, radial buttons, email messages and documents. Just about anything that can be seen is spoken aloud to a PC user who is blind. What the screen reader is actually “seeing” however, is not necessarily the text that appears on the computer monitor. The screen reader is in most cases making use of the underlying HTML or other programming language that is not visible to the end user.

While screen readers can read nearly every kind of web site text you are likely to encounter, what a screen reader cannot do is identify or “read,” a photograph or graphic. That is, unless the web designer embeds alt tag descriptive text behind the graphic, where it is not visible to a sighted web user.

If you want your web site visitors to quickly locate the “buy it now” button, or the price of your merchandise, or a special feature, or your company phone number, it is a good idea to make that information available to a screen reader through liberal use of alt tag text. Tool tips can also be voiced aloud by a screen reader program, so widespread use of pop up hints or tool tips can be very helpful. If your site visitor is blind or has difficulty manipulating a mouse, the keyboard is used to navigate instead. Therefore, all functions on your web site should be accessible by way of keyboard commands. Most screen reader software utilizes the tab key in place of the mouse. This key is used to jump from link to link, speaking aloud the name of the link as well as its purpose. As a blind computer user, I need to know if the link is a button, data entry field or edit box, or if it is a link that will take me to more information.

If you are an online business owner, you probably want to make the buying process for your customers simple and convenient. Even a modest level of accessibility can be achieved easily, by using “alt tags” throughout your web site. These suggestions are a bare minimum you might consider as a starting place, however, there is a standard of compliance as set forth by the W3C. To view a comprehensive set of guidelines for web accessibility, go to the W3C web site (http://www.w3.org/). For an explanation in plain English, go to Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/). If you would prefer a lively debate on web accessibility as it pertains to usability and current programming platforms, you can find that, too.

America’s largest demographic group, the ‘baby boomers’ are our society’s economic powerhouse. They are America’s greatest generation, as well as the greatest consumers of goods, services and information. That about covers what you sell online, doesn’t it? As this aging demographic nears retirement, they will be accompanied by a full complement of age and disease related complications, among these, vision loss.

Think about ways in which to increase accessibility to your web properties. In a shifting economic climate, can any business really afford to be exclusive? If your goal is to sell as much as you can to as many as you can, consider making the buying process as easy and as accessible, as possible. To understand the value of web site accessibility is to acknowledge the value of all people, from all walks of life. Accommodating the needs of computer users with disabilities might enhance both your worldview and your bottom line.


Laura Legendary is a speaker, author and educator specializing in disability awareness, advocacy, accessibility and assistive technology. She is the owner of Legendary Insights, http://www.legendaryinsights.com, as well as The Insights Institute http://www.insightsinstitute.org. For more information on accessibility, go to Accessible Insights at http://www.accessibleinsights.info.

13 Responses to “Why You Should Care About Web Site Accessibility

    hey dude
    Great stuff! i got a lot of inspiration from this post
    it is very interesting ….
    i went through this page two times
    am learning for social work

    Thanks

    This article reflects well on SiteProNews… and is sensible for anybody interested in SEO. I have started to think about making my website more accessible, first by using larger print, also possibly adding a voice link.

    I requested to be a Facebook Friend with Legendary Insights.

    It’s a great start to my day!

    avatar Bob Hext says:

    This is a really important article, and goes even further than Laura has said. How many people know that over 20% of the population suffer from Visual Stress (Usually called Irlen Syndrome in the USA) – which is a condition making it difficult to read black on white, and can often be solved by simply using a different coloured background? (It’s often connected to dyslexia, but not alsways) Our company specialised in Visual Stress solutions, and we also deal with some of the other accessibility resources she mentions. I’m probably one of the few SPN subscribers, apart from Laura, obviously, who is well-versed in this stuff, so it’s great to see the topic getting a mainstream airing!

    Incidentally, SPN team – yours is the only SEO publication I subscribe to. Thanks to your many excellent articles we have no 1 google slot (UK – we still don’t get much US traffic, even though we have a US subsidiary. Any ideas anyone!!?)for many of our keywords, and I am NO html guru! So a big thank you from over the Atlantic, and bring it on!!

    avatar Bob Hext says:

    I’ve just noticed in the comment I just submitted – I put “our company specialised in …” Should be “specialises in …” PLease could yoiu alter it?

    Thanks.

    Bob Hext

    avatar Eleanor Robinson says:

    According to the 2000 census information, over 40% of the 65 and older population report at least one disability. As the leading baby boomers are now 65, the population bulge is going to be increasingly impaired. Over 75% of them use the web regularly. That is why it becomes increasingly important that those of us in the industry make the effort to make our products accessible.

    7-128 Software produces computer games that are designed to be as accessible as the game permits. Our web site is accessible. We believe all web sites should be made accessible.

    Eleanor Robinson
    7-128 Software

    avatar remonatrix says:

    Web site accessibility is number one for many reasons.

    The w3c.org site validator is a great way to see how your site ranks concerning Xhtml.

    This is the first step is accessibility … and the first step to an easy access for people with dissabilities.

    avatar SEO Services says:

    This post gets right to the point and is written with expertise. Getting this kind of information from someone with an in-depth point of view is really valuable to anyone that is either trying to learn about the subject for the first time or trying to expand their understanding of it.

    avatar Gary Crow says:

    Thanks for writing the post. Those of us who use adaptive tools such as a screen reader value your attention to this issue. I have certainly experienced wanting to buy something and giving up because I could not get through the buying steps. Perhaps the most frustrating point is when I am all but finished and then am required to enter the characters in the little graphic just to prove I am a real person. There are systems to deal with that not requiring seeing the graphic or reading the characters by looking at them. At any rate, thanks for thinking of us.

    avatar Gary Crow says:

    I just posted a comment about how much I appreciated the article. I mentioned how frustrating the graphic is on many sites where I must enter some characters to prove I am a real person since my screen reader cannot read the graphic. I am back since when exiting this site I thought signing up for articles as they are posted would be pretty cool. I was sent to FeedBurner to finish signing up. Frustration, frustration. To sign up I have to enter the characters in a graphic. I guess the site folks are not much interested in blind people reading their articles or subscribing. This site is a case in point for your article. Perhaps you will mention that the next time you write about accessibility.

    avatar buying generic cialis says:

    Thank you! You often write very interesting articles. You improved my mood.

    avatar peter says:

    Recently I have been dealing with the Web presentation. These recommendations are very helpful. Thanks

    avatar Iza says:

    Great article, Laura. I just wanted to add that vision impairment is not the only disability that needs to be considered when designing for the web. People with physical, cognitive and hearing disabilities also use the web, so the number of ‘potential customers’ is in fact even greater. For those who need help with accessible web design and feel overwhelmed by W3C’s documentation can try WebAIM site http://www.webaim.org/. Their WAVE tool is really great for testing.

    Best wishes to all those who care!

    Iza

    avatar Ruben Rojas (@rubenmedios) says:

    I think that this article is great, easy to understand for people that don´t know about accessibility, and explain the basics but start point of accessibilty for the web.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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