by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
It's easier to understand the importance of designing accessible Web sites if you're familiar with the types of tools disabled people use to access the Internet. These assistive and adaptive technologies filter Web page content and present it to the user in an understandable format. Learn more about them to find out how they present your site to disabled visitors.
Look Past Visual Impairments
Accessibility is a hot topic among webmasters now, mainly due to the recent release of the United States government Access Board's guidelines for making federal Web sites accessible to the disabled. Federal agencies could face lawsuits from disabled users who can't access federal Web sites, so there is a huge effort in progress to retrofit existing sites and insure that new sites meet the standards.
Accessibility articles often focus on technologies that help blind and visually impaired users surf the Internet. Since the Web is inherently a visual medium, the problems and benefits are easy to describe. But that isn't the only consideration when you design for accessibility.
Consider these other design issues that affect Web site accessibility:
- Blinking text can trigger seizures in some visitors.
- Poor color choices may render text unreadable to color blind visitors.
- Mouse-dependent site navigation can be difficult for visitors with physical limitations.
- Information contained in sound clips is inaccessible to hearing-impaired visitors.
Your visitors' disabilities may range from obvious physical issues like restricted mobility to less visible cognitive difficulties. Depending on their limitations, those visitors will surf through your site using a variety of tools.
No Simple Solutions
Most accessibility utilities address a specific disability, so consumers often have to assemble a system that combines several different utilities. Besides the integration problems, the systems can be costly. They're rarely covered by insurance so individual users have to purchase the equipment themselves. There's a wide range of old equipment and software versions still in use because replacement costs are such a burden.
All this makes testing your Web pages really complicated. Ordinarily, you can reasonably assume that the vast majority of visitors are using one of several major browsers. But it's almost impossible to reliably predict which combinations of assistive technologies that a disabled user may have.
Still, if you concentrate on the most widely used products, you'll have a pretty good idea of how your site displays. We'll briefly describe some of the most popular utilities. Most offer a free 30-day trial copy download. This is a great way to emulate disabled users' Web browsing experiences.
A Little Larger, Please
People with visual difficulties like cataracts often use screen enlargers to magnify text and images on the screen. The magnifiers.org Web site contains product reviews, trial downloads, and many related accessibility links.
- MAGic : Screen magnifier only, but it's designed to easily integrate with the JAWS screen reader.
- SuperNova : includes screen magnification and screen reading with extensive speech support and support for Braille displays.
- ZoomText : Level One version is a screen magnifier only, while Level Two integrates a screen reader into the package.
Could You Repeat That?
Screen readers let users navigate through applications using either voice synthesis or Braille output. Visually impaired people use screen readers to assist them with all computer applications, not just Web browsing.
- JAWS uses an integrated voice synthesizer and your computer's sound card to output the content of your computer screen (including Web pages) to speakers. JAWS also outputs to refreshable Braille displays. Very widely used.
- Window-Eyes offers complete Braille support. Compatible with all Windows 9x and ME versions.
- EMACS Speak is a free browser and screen reader specifically designed for people with disabilities. Runs on Linux systems.
- Hal 4.5 for Windows offers extensive screen reader support for Web pages and other productivity tools.
- CAST eReader is specifically designed to make print-based text accessible to people with learning disabilities, visual disabilities, and reading difficulties.
Most of these utilities aren't specifically geared towards Web browsing but they're widely used for browsing because of cost concerns. A copy of JAWS costs about $800 by itself; many users can't afford to buy another utility just for Web surfing.
Just For The Web
Some companies produce browsers designed for users with visual impairments or physical problems that make it difficult to use a mouse. Used with screen readers, they often make Web browsing a more enjoyable experience.
- IBM Home Page Reader : designed strictly for Web surfing. Supports speech output and easy navigation.
- WebFormattor : a free tool that works with Explorer 5.0. It shows the content of the Web page in a separate text window. Users navigate using the keyboard's cursor keys.
- Lynx : a text-only browser not designed specifically for people with disabilities but widely used by them. It's available free.
For more information, check out the World Wide Web Consortium's article titled "How People With Disabilities Use The Web." It's an excellent introduction to a broad range of accessibility issues.
Listen while a screen reader reads your page or navigate through your site without using a mouse. Page content that's easy to read and understand on screen may be rendered almost incomprehensible when it's filtered through an assistive technology or utility.
Fortunately, with careful site design, you can make your site easier for all visitors to use. NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox can help. It alerts you to HTML code problems that can affect your site's overall usability and accessibility.