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In Depth: Web Accessibility - don't disable your site

In Depth: Web Accessibility - don't disable your site

The Internet makes a vast amount of information available to people, but not always the way they need it presented. This is where Web Accessibility plays a crucial role.

Web Accessibility is a set of techniques used to ensure information is available to the greatest number of people. However it's not just for those with disabilities; in fact it's often been said that Google is the largest blind user on the Internet. A few small changes can have a dramatic effect on the accessibility of your website.

A graphic designer recently told me:

I'm a bit discouraged about web accessibility. It's really not as simple as I thought it was... Not as simple as a lot of web accessibility evangelists make it out to be. It's complex and it's difficult, and it takes a long time, and will cost money.

He was right to an extent - it certainly is far more economical to deal with accessibility at the design phase and can be expensive and complex to do so after the fact.

How much does it cost not to make your web presence accessible though? The fact is, Web Accessibility cannot be ignored any longer, if you wish to cater for everyone on the Internet.

Who are we improving access to?

 Web Accessibility isn't just about making content and applications available to disabled users, an important fact that's often forgotten at the design stage.

Let's start with disabled users. We don't know how many people with disabilities are on the web but if we look at New Zealand at large, roughly twenty per cent of the population has some significant disability.

This  could be significant vision loss,  hearing loss,  mobility issues, or  another condition that affects their day-to-day lives.

From this, it is easy to extrapolate that many people with significant disabilities use the web. Unfortunately, there is no way of initially knowing which site visitors have a significant disability and how many potential customers we're cutting out by not making a few small changes.

Web Accessibility goes beyond people with disabilities of course. The same principles apply to colour-blind (around eight per cent of men), the aged, non-English speakers, and the increasing number using Smartphone user.

Look at it another way most businesses wouldn't hesitate to invest in Search Engine Optimisation if it increased their visitors by five to twenty per cent. Investing in web accessibility could potentially boost visitor numbers in a similar fashion, and pay for itself fast.

Let's look at some of these things in detail.

Those blind search engines

It is often said that "Google is the largest blind user on the internet" – search engines can't index content delivered only through images or Flash.

For instance, Infographics is a current Internet fad. Unless text-equivalent material is provided however, neither a search engine nor a screen-reading application can make sense of the content in the infographic.

Aging population

Our society is getting older and many people suffer declining eyesight. This doesn't affect people sufficiently to be classed as a disability, but it is sufficient to make life difficult if the font size isn't easy to adjust. Or if the colour contrast is low – grey text on light grey background may look splendid from a design point of view, but it's hard as heck to read!

Non-English Speakers

Language can be another barrier to access. Did you know that complex sentence structures shut out people with learning disabilities from websites?

Non-English speakers also find it harder to understand and make user of your site, unless you simplify the language on it.

The Internet means your audience is no longer just local, but from everywhere in the world. Make sure your site is open to a global audience.

Smartphones versus dumb sites

That person over there staring at an iPhone could be a visitor to your site. Have you thought about how the site looks like on a smartphone? If not, you should, because Smartphones are becoming the device of choice for people, and they are increasingly used to access websites with.

Even if the phone can handle Java and Flash apps, serving up content that way over costly mobile data connections, in New Zealand and Australia is probably not the right way to do it.

Always test your site on popular mobile devices to make sure that you don't miss out on this potentially vast audience.


Some quick and easy tips

Try some of the below tips to evaluate your site from an accessibility point.

Keyboard Only

Can the website be used without a mouse? Can you navigate the site by using only the TAB or SHIFT+TAB keys?

If cascading style sheets are used to style the links when the mouse hovers over them (a:hover), is it also used to style links that get focus (a:focus)?

Doing this significantly increases visual indicators to sighted people using keyboard only on your site, such as people with arthritis, paralysis, or other conditions that reduce the fine motor control of the hands.

This can often be changed site-wide with one small change to your CSS.

Colour and Contrast

Ensure there is sufficient contrast between text and text background. Don't use light font on light background. Don't use red text on blue background, or vice-versa.

Don't rely on colour to deliver important information – for example, don't think that because you used CSS to make text appear red, it will be seen as red by every user. People may be colour blind. People may load the site without CSS, or with custom CSS. The visitors could be blind and rely on screen reader that doesn't specify text colour.

The big picture

Screen reader applications don't know what to do with images when encountering them - unless the site code explicitly says what to do with it.

Some smartphone users turn images off to reduce bandwidth use and lower load times. This is why it is hugely important to provide alternative text by assigning the alt attribute of the img tag. This is essential for search engine optimisation as well.

That said, for decorative images on a site, you should make the alt-text empty like this:

<img src="path-to-image" alt="" />

The reason for this is that decorative images are not part of the textual content. Adding alternative text such as "spacer", or "blue circle" creates noise and in fact reduces accessibility.

Flashes in the pan

Technology moves rapidly, and and is a big challenge for web developers - how to make use of the latest technology in a way that doesn't block your content from people?

Don't forget that screen reader developers usually aren't keeping up with latest technology. There are some technologies that are not new, nor cutting edge, that are not as accessible as possible. Flash can be made accessible. But it is not easy to get it right. AJAX can be made accessible. Again, it can be tricky to ensure it works for everyone.

This doesn't mean you should not use these technologies, but be aware that you should implement available accessibility features when they exist and not rely on these technologies to deliver content.

A good example is Javascript menus. These can certainly add to a site by making navigation easier, but what about those who can't use Javascript? A good website will have a non-JS menu structure in place as well, which can be as easy as the element with a drop-down also being a link to another page with the menu items.

Try turning Javascript off in your browser - is it still possible to navigate and use your site, even if it doesn't look quite as good?


Quick and easy testing

The best way to test a site or application is to get some users together and let them have a go. This is also the most expensive method and is not often possible. What can you do as a small developer?

A "quick and dirty" way to test a site is to use a text-only browser such as Lynx to load the site up. If you can access all the content on the site in Lynx, chances are that everyone will be able to access the content. Note – this does not mean that a site is automatically not accessible if it doesn't work in a text-only browser, but you'll get a good indication.

You can check the colour contrast with several online tools, including:

The current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) are available from:


Disabled in the workplace

Accessibility isn't a new concept, having been around in real life for a long time.

Consider the following scenario:

You have a bespoke application that is used by all employees.

This application was not developed with accessibility in mind.

A qualified and experienced job applicant with a disability applies for a new position.

The only reason you can't hire them is that they are unable to use your inaccessible custom application.

Not only is your business or organisation missing out on a potentially great employee in this time of skills shortages, but there could be some legal issues around not providing access to your application for disabled people.


With potentially as many as one in five of visitors to your website having some sort of significant disability, considering accessibility at the design stage is quite simply a must. It's not as difficult as it may seem, nor as costly, and the benefits of having an accessible website easily outweigh the effort and expense.


Nic Steenhout is the founder of Accessibility NZ, New Zealand's Web Accessibility experts. More information at


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