Monday, October 02, 2006

Web Accessibility

I attended the Web Directions conference last week. One of the eye-opening sessions (at least for me) was “Accessibility 2.0” and “Designing for Accessibility: More simple techniques that make a difference” by Derek Featherstone from FurtherAhead.

Accessibility is about allowing disabled people to use our website. I have never worked on a project that would require access by people with disabilities. I think it really takes a real life experience to realize what these people must go through in their everyday lives. Why should we make it more difficult for them with our web applications? Do you know how many web applications stop working when you switch JavaScript off? You would be surprised to see how big number that is.

There are some guidelines that we can follow in order to make our websites more accessible. If we remove frames, replace menu images with menu using text and CSS, don't use tables for formatting, we make a big step towards accessibility of our websites. Another thing is having PDF documents on the website. PDFs are not accessible and they also need to be downloaded in order to read them and find out that it's not the document that we wanted. Another place for improvement are the web forms. Fields should have labels.

The phrase “people with disabilities don't go to our website” is just a nonsense. They do and they can also bring some revenue. Take for example Tesco Access. Grocery shopping on the web is an ideal service for visually-impaired customers. Imagine trying to tell a can of beans from a can of tomatoes on the shelf if you can't see the labels. Then think about having the description read to you by your computer. Their website was designed for accessibility and because of this feature it boosted revenue by another 4%.

Accessibility is personal. Removing barriers, user testing is personal.

Where do I go from here? Well, I will start at the roots – W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and Section 508. Then I will read Dive into Accessibility book that according to its website answers two questions “Why should I make my web site more accessible?” and “How can I make my web site more accessible?” Australia with its Disability Discrimination Act is six years ahead of USA.

I also found The Illinois Center for Instructional Technology Accessibility very informative. They list the best practices, have software for download (Accessibility Extensions for Mozilla/Firefox lives here) and lots more. Another great resource for developers is Evaluating Web Sites for Accessibility with Firefox by Patrick H. Lauke.

Some of these guidelines are very much a checklist approach. User experience is more important. Therefore we need to sit down with the real user, the one that will be using the system, and work together in order to fulfill the user's needs and expectations of this system.

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