We should take every opportunity that we can to make information available and accessible to all people, including persons with disabilities, to enable them to live independently and equally participate in all aspects of life and profession. Especially in the information age, where internet and the world wide web has opened doors to access of information and knowledge to everyone around the world, it becomes extremely important that the content creators and the developers of websites make sure that their websites and accessible to everyone.
Equal Opportunities To Persons with Disabilities
The web is an essential communication tool. With the rapid growth of the Internet, all kinds of information are shared and transported on the web. That is why, it has now become essential to ensure that websites are accessible to persons with disabilities to enable their full integration to the society. People with disabilities should have an equal and barrier-free access to information.
This is also in line with the spirit of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force for Nepal on 7th May 2008.
What is Web Accessibility?
Web Accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web Accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the web. Some organizations mistake “accessibility” to be about whether or not people “can find you”, however accessibility is not about being easily found on search engines and social media, it is about designing sites and contents for everyone, no matter who they are or how they access and perceive the internet and the world. It specifically addresses the needs of persons with disabilities, and ensures acceptable ease of use and consumption of information for all levels of ability.
Web Accessibility, in its basics, is making sure that web sites, products and services are available and usable to all users regardless of
- Physical ability
- Speed of internet
- Type of device
Hence, ensuring Web Accessibility starts with asking the question “Can ALL people, including persons with disabilities, access the information that your website provides?”.
By adopting relevant guidelines when designing websites and contents of websites to cater for the needs of persons with disabilities, you are making your website more user-friendly, maximizing your customer base and showing that you are an organization that cares.
Myths About Accessibility
When it comes to web accessibility, due to lack of awareness and education, there are many myths and misconceptions prevalent among developers, content creators and website owners and managers in general. Some of them are listed and outlined below. A good understanding about them will help you introduce and drive accessibility in your organization and websites.
1) Persons with disabilities do not use websites
Many people, including website owners, developers and content creators assume that persons with disabilities do not use websites or access web services. Where, in fact, the opposite is the case. Persons with disabilities often use websites, and in some cases more than persons without disabilities. The web has become a great enabler for these people to live a more independent life. Persons with disabilities use the internet and websites to shop online, socialize with people and access information regarding education, employment and government.
Thus, it seems to be necessary to sensitize more and more people about digital accessibility and break the myth about persons with disabilities not using websites.
2) Accessible websites are boring.
Designers and developers fear that building an accessible website would mean that their websites will look and feel boring, and they will not be able to properly utilize many of the modern and rich features of the web. That is not necessarily the case.
Web Accessibility relies upon good coding techniques and simple and useful design. Simple and useful design not necessarily mean a boring design. It is perfectly possible to create a simple and sophisticated design that fully stays in line with digital accessibility if coded properly. Also, ensuring digital accessibility will only enhance the experience of the features in the website, not limit it.
3) Web accessibility is expensive
There is also a widespread belief that building an accessible website will take more time and is more expensive, and resist this process.
In fact, building an accessible website in general can save you time and money in the long term through better programming discipline, good coding techniques, more extended coverage and failure proof design. Accessible websites are created in such a manner that its easier to maintain and adapt to change. Accessible websites are optimized for usability and good user experience.
Websites designed with accessibility in mind are made compatible with the majority of different web browsers and devices making them failure proof and future proof.
Common Barriers in a Website
Some of the most common barriers and issues regarding accessibility on websites are listed below.
Proper alternatives like Alt Text and Descriptions should always be provided for non-text information on a website like images and videos. Lack of these alternatives affect people with visual disabilities and prevent them from properly accessing the information.
Images should contain descriptive text alternatives that effectively describes the image shown.
Video content should include text transcripts about the content and the type of video.
If you have a photo in your website, you should include alt text to describe the photo to a visually impaired person.
Screen Reader tools, which is used by people with visual disabilities to use websites, read the text alternatives of the image and read it aloud to them. In this way, visually impaired people know what the image contains and what it is about.
While giving text alternatives, you have to make sure that they are meaningful and suitably descriptive.
Insufficient Font Sizes and Color Contrast
Persons with partial visual disabilities and those with learning and cognitive disabilities face difficult time properly perceiving text information provided on a website with too small font size. Websites should be designed with larger font sizes that are easier to read.
It is a good practice to provide functions within a website that allows a user to enlarge the font size of the website to their liking.
Also, proper care should be given to ensure that the texts are readable by using proper contrast between background and text color. Color contrast should be kept in mind while designing the whole website in general to make sure that people with various kinds of color blindness can properly view, differentiate and understand the components and information in the website.
Complicated and Inconsistent Website and Navigation Structure
Complicated and inconsistent website structures are difficult to use and understand not only for people with disabilities, but also for people without disabilities. The proper ordering of elements and content areas in a website plays a vital role in making the website look and feel good, and also increase the overall usability of the website for all users. As an added benefit, using a proper and consistent structure and layout for a website makes it much easier for people with disabilities, specially visually impaired people, to navigate and access information more easily and effectively using keyboard.
Complicated navigation schemes and complex navigation elements on a website oppose a big hindrance in accessibility. It is very important to either stick to simpler navigation schemes that is easily understandable by any user or to take extra measures to make sure that these navigation elements are compatible with assistive tools. We see a lot of websites that have “cool” and “flashy” navigation elements like hover menus that look good, but usually aren’t keyboard friendly. For a visually impaired person, who uses websites primarily through a keyboard, these elements are completely useless and inaccessible.
Many websites use links such as “More Information” and “Learn More” at various places. These links will make sense to sighted users as they can see where these links are placed and connect it to its context. But for people using screen readers, the multiple instances of these links with the same text can be confusing and harder for them to retain the context of these links.
This can be avoided by using descriptive link text instead of ambiguous text like “More Information”.
Short Time Allowed for Time Limited Functions
Time critical functions, if any, on a website should have adequate time to interact for all kinds of users, including users with full or partial visual disabilities, people with cognitive disabilities and people using the website with assistive technologies.
Alternatively, mechanisms to extend the time limit in the middle of the process can be introduced as a part of the interface.
Many websites these days consists of rich web elements like video players, audio players, slide shows, etc. These rich elements consist of control elements that help navigate and access these rich content and media. Many of the times, these control elements are not built with accessibility in mind.
As an example, volume bars in audio and video players should be designed large so that interaction with these items using a mouse is easier for people with partial visual disabilities and other mental disabilities.
These elements should be made keyboard compatible so that they can be navigated and accessed using a keyboard. Additionally, keyboard shortcuts should be provided to control these rich contents and elements.
For example, a good approach to adopt for volume control is to implement volume increase/decrease buttons that can be clicked instead of a slider that has to be dragged. This also makes it easier to assign keyboard shortcuts to each button
Difficulties Accessing Documents (PDFs)
A lot of content on the web are shared using Portable Document Format (PDF). PDF documents should exclusively be used in situations when you have a piece of content that you would like people to download and read offline. PDF documents can be helpful for people with disabilities because they can download and read the content of these documents using the assistive technologies built into PDF reading software like Adobe Acrobat Reader. Also, PDF documents are also helpful for people in places where internet connection is not consistently available all the time.
While providing and sharing PDF document, we have to ensure that these documents are compatible with assistive technologies, such as screen readers. PDF documents should always be produced from a text-based source document so that it is readable by a computer, screen readers and Braille devices used by people with visual impairments. Image based documents, such as TIF, JPG, PNG files that are produced by scanning a document, should be converted into text-based documents using Optical Character Reader (OCR) software, or by manual transcription, before producing the PDF document.
The easiest way to test if a PDF document is accessible is by selecting a portion of the text in the PDF reading software. If text can be selected, then the PDF document is produced with proper text rather than images.
PDF documents also need to be properly structured and tagged so that PDF reading software are able to provide contextual and structural information about the document and the part of content being read to the user.
Furthermore, any content that is meant to be read online should be given in proper standard HTML web pages rather than PDF documents. PDF documents should be used when you wish the users to download the content and read it offline.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an initiative led by W3C to bring together people from the web industries, disability organizations, government bodies, policy makers, research labs, etc., from around the world to develop guidelines and resources to help make the web accessible to persons with disabilities.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) works in five levels
- Ensuring that web technologies support accessibility
- Developing guidelines for accessibility
- Improving tools to evaluate and repair accessibility
- Developing tools for education and outreach
- Coordinating with research and development
As part of the third level of work of WAI, W3C has created and published a set of guidelines for ensuring accessibility in web technologies. These guidelines are named the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
These guidelines explain how to make web content more accessible to persons with disabilities and the current version is known as the WCAG 2.0 which was published in December of 2008.
At first, the guidelines can appear pretty complex. However, the guidelines and all its components are logical and with some effort, anybody can understand and learn how to use and comply with these guidelines.
The WCAG 2.0 consists of four layers of guidance that describe the overall principles, general guidelines, testable success criteria and proper techniques to achieving accessibility. These 4 layers are:
- Principles: The top level of guidance that describes the overall principles that provide the foundation for Web Accessibility: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust.
- Guidelines: Under the principles, there are, in total, 12 guidelines that describe the goals that the developers and content creators should work on to achieve Web Accessibility.
- Success Criteria: For each guideline, testable success criteria are defined that can be used to test the level of accessibility. There are 3 levels of success criteria defined, Level A for Basic, Level AA for Recommended and Level AAA for Ideal.
- Sufficient and Advisory Techniques: For the guidelines and success criteria, WCAG also defines various techniques to better achieve and comply with them while developing content and technologies for the web.
WCAG 2.0 Principles
There are 4 basic principles defined by WCAG 2.0 to Web Accessibility. These principles provide the foundation to achieving accessibility in web technologies. The guidelines and success criteria of WCAG 2.0 are all categorized under one of these 4 principles:
Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
i.e. Users must be able to perceive the information being presented in the form of the senses that they possess.
User interface components and navigation must be operable.
i.e. Users must be able to operate the interface and should not consist of interaction that a user can not perform.
Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
i.e. User must be able to understand the content and the interface and should not go beyond any user’s understandings.
Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
i.e. Users must be able to access the content with any technology as they advance.
If any of these is not true, persons with disabilities will not be able to use the website.
This is an excerpt from “The Web Accessibility Guide: Promoting Web For All”, a book that was published by NFDN, with the support of CBM, and authored by me. The book was published on April of 2017 and discusses various concepts and techniques to help web developers, designers and managers to create websites that are accessible and usable for all users including persons with disabilities. You can download the e-book and an accessible version of the book from NFDN’s website HERE
Disclaimer: The contents of this guidebook are based on the WCAG technical documents developed by Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AGWG), which is a part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).