Building Accessible Websites

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  • 10/13/2016
    There are many reasons to develop accessible websites. In some situations, you may be legally required to make your site accessible. In others, interpretational uncertainties of the law may make it safer for you or your business to avoid a lawsuit.
     
    Ideally, all websites would be highly accessible. Imagine being unable to see and using a website by having the computer read it to you. This isn’t as efficient for you as sight, but it serves a similar means to an end. Now imagine that the site seems like a confused and hallow afterthought when read aloud compared to the visual version of the site.
     
    This problem can then range from a slightly more annoying user experience to complete uselessness, even on websites that seem perfectly acceptable to everyone else. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is the web that some people experience daily.

    How do websites become accessible?

    There is no absolute division between an accessible website and an inaccessible website. Many factors contribute to how accessible a site is in very complex ways. Generally, the more complex the site is, the more ambitious the experience goals are, and the more difficult it will be to make the site usable to those with disabilities. Some of these factors include the visual identity, content writing style, metadata associated with media and front end programming choices. Addressing each of these increases cost and requires additional production time for businesses.

    Measuring accessibility

    Both legal and organizational standards exist for measuring accessibility, which are often presented in the form of checklists. One commonly referred to legal standard is Section 508 of the American Rehabilitation Act which provides a checklist for websites and one for applications. Another common standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are provided by the web’s standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium.
     
    Below is a list of traits commonly considered as accessibility concerns:
    • Low-contrast and small text can be difficult to see for those with vision problems.
    • Legend information keyed solely to color is unperceivable to colorblind users.
    • Incomplete metadata often results in some users missing non-text content.
    • Timed media without synchronized captions and descriptions may lack critical information for blind and deaf users.
    • Complex wording can act as a barrier to understanding for users with cognitive disabilities.
    • The use of certain frequencies in animation can cause seizures.
     
     
    Alt attribute: A website which relies on images cannot be conveyed by a screen reader
     
    The above diagram shows what happens when critical information for understanding a site is missing. The products are shown as images, but there’s no text for a screen reader to read. This text doesn’t necessarily have to be displayed, but rather may be embedded in the code of the site as metadata. Two ways of accomplishing this are using HTML’s alt attribute and ARIA’s aria-label attribute.  Instead of saying “Link – image, link – image,” the screen reader can be directed to say “Link – a can of paint, link – many small cans of paint…”
     
    Many of these traits, when adjusted for accessibility, help other users as well. Able-sighted folks benefit from the clarity of larger, higher-contrast text. Cognitively able people benefit from the concise clarity of a simpler writing style. Some of the metadata that strengthens accessibility can also improve the experience for other users. For example, screen readers rely on metadata associations between labels and fields in order to verbalize the field's label when it receives focus, helping blind users. The same association causes browsers to focus the field when the label is clicked, which helps sighted users.

    The importance of testing

    In addition to complying with legal or other objective standards, if you truly want to make a website accessible, manual testing is also important. Only technically complying with a standard may leave accessibility issues for users. The solution is to actually try to use the site’s accessibility features. Often, this means using a site that has screen reading software that recites the site aloud as text.
     
    Just as there are compatibility quirks across browsers, there are also compatibility quirks between browsers and screen readers. The ARIA standard of metadata is supposed to influence and optimize screen reader behavior, but not every combination of browser and screen reader supports every capability defined by ARIA. Sometimes, nothing can be done about this for a particular site element, and the only option for making a feature accessible is to develop a simpler version of the experience for accessibility users.
     
    When an organization builds a website that's not accessible, it's actively showing some of its users that it's not interested in their business, whether it means to or not. Similarly, a website which pays careful attention to accessibility details is likely to be appreciated by those who need to use those features in order to benefit from it at all. Ensuring that everyone can use your site is an effective way to communicate to your entire audience, disability or not, that their concerns are important to you. Doing so effectively associates positive emotions with your brand, which might just lead to more and more business.  In order to stay at the cutting edge of the industry, companies ought to consider accessibility when starting any web project.

    Learn more

    To learn more about website accessibility, accessibility compliance and how it impacts your site, contact thunder::tech.
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