An accessible web is common sense

WIRED: YOU WOULDN’T necessarily think of cutting-edge web development as being strongly connected with making the world better for people with disabilities, but it turns out that many of the strongest online design advocates take that as their driving design principle writes Danny O’Brien

With guides such as Dive into Accessibility and calls to arms on designer websites like A List Apart, the aim is to make every page on the internet readable for those with sensory disabilities, ie the visually or hearing impaired.

It’s not out of charity or even legal obligations that the movement has had so much success: it’s because there are compelling business and technological reasons for creating websites in this way. It turns out that the best way to get your website widely picked up by search engines and easily maintained in the future is the same method that enables you to reach users with disabilities more easily.

Why is this? Well, the first reason is that users with disabilities use different web browsers from the rest of the world. Visually impaired computer users often use programs such as Jaws, which speaks aloud the contents of the webpages it downloads.

Obviously, it cannot translate images, but it can use hints that some web designers place around images. Similarly, it can often do a good job of skipping the irrelevant parts of a webpage if they are flagged correctly. A browser for blind people might only read out the key headings of a text page instead of all of the text, and let the user pick which part to read.

However, these browsers cannot manage everything. Most notably, if you embed your entire website in a Flash movie or refuse to include hints on the structure of your webpage, non-mainstream browsers will run into difficulties.

As it turns out, the typical browser for visually impaired people is similar to the typical search engine.

Search engines also look at your webpages through the prism of a “non-mainstream browser”: their automated website spiders.

Search engines can’t deduce much from a website embedded in a Flash movie, but they can use correctly marked headings and tagged imagery to help categorise your website for their search listings.

Mark Pilgrim, one of the strongest advocates for accessible websites, says it better than anyone else: “The Googlebot [the program that collects website information for Google] is just another blind user – with 100 million friends.”

Search engines are not the only ones that benefit from designers thinking about non-mainstream browsers. In the past few years, the idea of what a “mainstream” web browser is has changed radically.

Just five years ago, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had an overwhelming lead in the market and shortsighted designers were building websites for that one piece of software.

Now, the market is split between Explorer, open-source browser Firefox, Apple’s Safari and the Norwegian Opera browser.

One of the only ways to future- proof webpages is to use the standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – and these are exactly the same standards used when building accessibility into a website.

The hints and organisation added to a webpage by thinking about accessibility also make it more maintainable. Webpages often look clean and simple in a standard browser, but if you check their HTML structure (just choose “View Source” in your browser), you’ll often see a mess of confused code underneath.

Accessible websites are designed so that the underlying structure is just as clear as the final result. That means new web designers (or the same designers returning to re-edit webpages) can more easily understand how to fix or modify an accessible webpage than an inaccessible one.

Not only is it easier for designers to deal with accessible webpages, but it’s easier for programmers too.

Programs can understand accessible websites better than inaccessible sites, so programmers can more easily write code to test and interact with disability-friendly websites.

There are also legal reasons why you should consider making your website accessible: if you want government contracts for work, they will often require accessibility to be included (especially the US federal government, which has strict rules in this area).

But perhaps the best business reason is this: why exclude any customer who has gone to the effort to find and explore your website?

There should be no reason to turn anyone away, especially if, by making your website accessible to people with disabilities, you make it easier for everyone to find.

As Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, has said: “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.”

© 2008 The Irish Times