Understanding Website Accessibility
Web accessibility is the inclusive practice of ensuring there are no barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to, websites on the World Wide Web by people with physical disabilities, situational disabilities, and sociology-economic restrictions on bandwidth and speed. When sites are correctly designed, developed and edited, generally all users have equal access to information and functionality.
For example, when a site is coded with semantically meaningful HTML, with textual equivalents provided for images and with links named meaningfully, this helps blind users using text-to-speech software and/or text-to-Braille hardware. When text and images are large and/or enlargeable, it is easier for users with poor sight to read and understand the content. When links are underlined (or otherwise differentiated) as well as colored, this ensures that color blind users will be able to notice them. When clickable links and areas are large, this helps users who cannot control a mouse with precision. When pages are not coded in a way that hinders navigation by means of the keyboard alone, or a single switch access device alone, this helps users who cannot use a mouse or even a standard keyboard. When videos are closed captioned or a sign language version is available, deaf and hard-of-hearing users can understand the video. When flashing effects are avoided or made optional, users prone to seizures caused by these effects are not put at risk. And when content is written in plain language and illustrated with instructional diagrams and animations, users with dyslexia and learning difficulties are better able to understand the content. When sites are correctly built and maintained, all of these users can be accommodated without decreasing the usability of the site for non-disabled users.
The needs that Web accessibility aims to address include:
- Visual: Visual impairments including blindness, various common types of low vision and poor eyesight, various types of color blindness;
- Motor/mobility: e.g. difficulty or inability to use the hands, including tremors, muscle slowness, loss of fine muscle control, etc., due to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, stroke;
- Auditory: Deafness or hearing impairments, including individuals who are hard of hearing;
- Seizures: Photo epileptic seizures caused by visual strobe or flashing effects.
- Cognitive and intellectual: Developmental disabilities, learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.), and cognitive disabilities (PTSD, Alzheimer’s) of various origins, affecting memory, attention, developmental “maturity”, problem-solving and logic skills, etc.
Accessibility is not confined to the list above, rather it extends to anyone who is experiencing any permanent, temporary or situational disability. Situational disability refers to someone who may be experiencing a boundary based on the current experience. For example, a person may be situationally one-handed if they are carrying a baby. Web accessibility should be mindful of users experiencing a wide variety of barriers.
Website Accessibility Audit
A growing number of organizations, companies and consultants offer website accessibility audits. These audits, a type of system testing, identify accessibility problems that exist within a website, and provide advice and guidance on the steps that need to be taken to correct these problems.
A range of methods are used to audit websites for accessibility:
- Automated tools are available which can identify some of the problems that are present. Depending on the tool the result may vary widely making it difficult to compare test results.
- Expert technical reviewers, knowledgeable in web design technologies and accessibility, can review a representative selection of pages and provide detailed feedback and advice based on their findings.
- User testing, usually overseen by technical experts, involves setting tasks for ordinary users to carry out on the website, and reviewing the problems these users encounter as they try to carry out the tasks.
Each of these methods has its strengths and weaknesses:
- Automated tools can process many pages in a relatively short length of time, but can only identify some of the accessibility problems that might be present in the website.
- Technical expert review will identify many of the problems that exist, but the process is time consuming, and many websites are too large to make it possible for a person to review every page.
- User testing combines elements of usability and accessibility testing, and is valuable for identifying problems that might otherwise be overlooked, but needs to be used knowledgeably to avoid the risk of basing design decisions on one user’s preferences.
Ideally, a combination of methods should be used to assess the accessibility of a website.
Remediating Inaccessible Websites
Once an accessibility audit has been conducted, and accessibility errors have been identified, the errors will need to be remediated in order to ensure the site is compliant with accessibility errors. The traditional way of correcting an inaccessible site is to go back into the source code, reprogram the error, and then test to make sure the bug was fixed. If the website is not scheduled to be revised in the near future, that error (and others) would remain on the site for a lengthy period of time, possibly violating accessibility guidelines. Because this is a complicated process, many website owners choose to build accessibility into a new site design or re-launch, as it can be more efficient to develop the site to comply with accessibility guidelines, rather than to remediate errors later.
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