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Design Tip:
Designing Accessible Web Pages

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

  
December 2000
Vol. 3, No. 17
 • Design Tip
 • HTML Tip
 • Beginner Tip
  

If you could increase your Web site audience by 20% - and only incur an extra 1-2% in design costs, wouldn't that be a good deal? Well you can. Most existing Web sites require only minor modifications to make them accessible to the estimated 750 million people worldwide who have disabilities.

A Large, Loyal Market Is Waiting

Disabled users represent a large market that is beginning to demand more online accessibility. Internet access "makes the difference between living and just existing" for many disabled people," asserts Bill Stilwater, who founded the Computers for Handicapped Independence Program.

A recent Harris Poll found that Americans with disabilities spend twice as much time on the Internet as those without disabilities. The Internet has given many disabled people easy access to news and information, more social interaction, and the ability to comparison shop. They are loyal, repeat customers.

You can earn their business with a few simple techniques that are quick, easy, and don't involve changing your basic page layout.

5 Steps To Accessibility

Imagine that you were hearing your Web page read aloud (as with a text-based browser - this is how an assistive technology device reads it) instead of looking at it online. Does the information make sense? Do you understand how to navigate through the site?

If not, start with these 5 techniques to modify your code.

1. Text Equivalent: Always provide a text equivalent to any information you present with graphics, videos, applets, etc. Use the text to describe the content and/or function, not merely to describe the graphic. If you include a chart that illustrates how company sales rose 300% in only a year, use that descriptive text in your ALT tag ('Sales Up 300% in FY2000!') instead of merely labeling it 'sales chart graphic.'

2. Alternate Navigation: Always provide a text links somewhere on your page if you rely mainly on image maps for site navigation.

3. Color: Don't use color as a primary means to impart information. If you display sale items in red text, try to group them together under a text section header that says: "Sale-Priced Items!" Choose colors and color combinations carefully too: as many as 1 in 12 white males have some sort of color blindness.

4. Links: Clearly label your links as links and describe the destination. Be particularly careful with this if you're using an image as an important link. A graphic of a shopping cart should clearly indicate that it links to the shopping cart page: 'View the contents of your shopping cart' and not merely 'Shopping Cart.'

5. JavaScript Alternative: Remember that some browsers don't support JavaScript or that users may have it disabled. Provide JavaScript alternatives to any critical functions on your Web page.

NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox will help by alerting you to most HTML coding problems and errors on your page. When you correct those errors, you take a big step towards accessibility.

Those 5 steps are just common sense design. Sites that don't bother with them lose visitors. They aren't just losing disabled visitors either: text-based content is becoming more important as consumers embrace new technologies like personal digital assistants and cell phones with Web access.

Testing Your Site

Is your site accessible to all users? There are several different ways to check your pages for accessibility problems.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) offers the Bobby engine, a free tool that analyzes pages for accessibility. Pages that pass are entitled to display the "Bobby Approved" icon.

Download a free copy of Lynx or try an online Lynx Simulator to see how your site displays in a text-only format.

IBM's Home Page Reader lets blind or visually impaired users navigate through a Web site using the keyboard. Users hear the full range of web page content provided in a logical, clear, and understandable manner. IBM offers a 30-day free trial download copy.

The National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) offers the Media Access Generator (MAGpie), a free tool that lets authors add captions to three multimedia formats: QuickTime, SMIL, and SAMI. MAGpie can also integrate audio descriptions into SMIL presentations.

The U.S. government's Federal IT Accessibility Page provides even more accessibility links and information about how to comply with Federal IT accessibility guidelines.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI) is working on final Web content accessibility guidelines and Web authoring tools accessibility guidelines. You can access the draft copy online for reference.

Inaccessible Sites Frustrate All Users

Although some designers complain that accessible page design means boring, unattractive pages with no graphics, that's not the case. Many attractive, usable Web sites incorporate basic accessibility principles without sacrificing page quality. All is takes is good coding techniques and attention to detail.

Other Web sites lack basic elements that increase accessibility and hurt overall usability. Amazingly, usability surveys show that Ecommerce sites are some of the worst offenders. UsableNet maintains a Web Usability Index that provides a two-month floating usability average compiled from sites that test online with UsableNet's service.

Here are some statistics from the 11/21/2000 report:

  Ecommerce Sites Corporate Sites Identity Sites
Missing ALT Tags 48% 57% 27%
Unduplicated Links in Image Maps 13% 7% 34%

Missing ALT tags can hurt your search engine rank and annoy visitors who have to wait for the mystery images to load. When image maps are a site's only navigation path, then any visitor - disabled or not - can get stranded if there's a problem with the page.

In fact, most design techniques that make a page accessible to disabled users also increase the usability level for all users.

Avoid Lawsuits!

You may not be concerned about usability or determined to increase your audience, but surely you want to avoid lawsuits!

In 1996, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that Web sites are public accommodations and must therefore offer access to the disabled to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In July 2000, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) withdrew its lawsuit against AOL when the ISP agreed to make its Version 6.0 more accessible to blind users.

Think about it. With an accessible site you increase your potential audience, avoid lawsuits, and have a site that's responsive to new technologies.



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