What if you had to try and get information you needed from a website without seeing its images? If you couldn't hear the audio on its videos? If you couldn't distinguish between the colors used in its diagrams? Maybe you don’t have to imagine because you yourself have a disability or other circumstance that makes your experiences with the Web different from the average user. There are people who find themselves in these kinds of situations every day, whether temporary (they can’t hear the audio because they’re in a loud place without headphones) or permanent (they can’t hear the audio because they’re deaf or hard of hearing).
There are various tools to help people use computers and websites in a way that works for their needs. Some of them exist across most computers and browsers, like the ability to increase text size on webpages. Others are more specialized, like Braille displays. When it comes to websites, the effectiveness of these tools can come down to how we build our sites and what kind of content we put on them. The practice of ensuring websites can be used by people with disabilities is known as “web accessibility.”
The “Non-Traditional” User
Accessibility works hand-in-hand with usability and search engine optimization. Googlebot, the software Google uses to crawl websites, doesn’t see or hear in a traditional sense, so accessible content is often easier for search engines to index, too. Accessible content can provide a better experience for the traditional user, too, when it makes content easier to understand and access. Consider the rhetorical questions at the start of this article and what could be done to support people in those situations:
- Not seeing images. Best practice is to include an “alt” attribute on all images. When an image is being used to convey information the user needs to use the website or understand the content, the alt attribute should provide a textual version of that information. This benefits visually impaired users as, for example, screen readers can speak those captions aloud. Search engines can also index this text and if an image fails to load, the information is still available.
- Not hearing the audio component of a video. By providing captions or transcripts, users are able to get the video content in writing. This also puts it into a format that search engines can make better sense of and makes it available to users who can’t access the video.
- Not being able to distinguish between colors in a diagram. Color-blindness can make charts and other instructional diagrams difficult to understand. To make these graphics more accessible, use highly contrasting colors and consider adding patterns or using other techniques to convey information in addition to color. This also ensures the diagram translates well for users trying to print it on a black-and-white printer.
These are only a few of the situations where accessibility has an impact (projects like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide comprehensive lists of web accessibility considerations), but they are good reminders that considering potential solutions to accessibility problems can help web developers provide better overall experiences for all site visitors.
The Road to Accessibility
So why aren’t all websites accessible? Making complex web experiences accessible often requires expertise and additional development time. Sometimes it means not going along with trends that are at odds with accessibility. When it seems like a very small number of users are impacted by these efforts, they’re not always treated as a priority. As was the case with accessibility outside of the web, it might take legislation to bring web accessibility to the forefront. There are already laws in the U.S. that require some websites, such as government websites, to be accessible. Since 2010, in the U.S. the Department of Justice has been considering making web accessibility a part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though the impact of these potential changes on website owners is not yet clear.
Developing an Accessible Website
If you want to give accessibility consideration when building and maintaining your website, where do you begin? A good place to start is by embracing the ways in which websites are accessible by nature. In February, a web developer named Hugo Giraudel tweeted, “Accessibility exists until you break it.” This is perhaps an oversimplification, but there is truth in that statement. Imagine a website without any custom styling, consisting of a few headings and paragraphs of text assembled with standards-compliant code. It's awfully utilitarian, but it's very likely that anyone who might want to access that content could reasonably do so. The text would wrap to fit screens of all sizes, it would be easy to use browser features to change the size and color of the text if needed, screen readers would be able to interpret it, and so on. It’s the choices we make as we add complexity to a site that can introduce the biggest barriers to accessibility.
If we keep web accessibility in mind when planning and building websites, we can make better choices. The non-profit organization WebAIM conducts annual surveys of users of screen readers and in their 2015 survey, 43% of respondents thought that the primary reason websites are inaccessible is “lack of awareness of web accessibility.” The first step to getting it right is to remember to think about it in the first place. All users benefit when we challenge our assumptions and strive to clear the way for all the different ways users prefer to access our content.