Something for Everyone

A busy street in Europe, blurred.

Take a look at your favorite website’s home page. Select All. Copy, then Paste it into your favorite text editor. Those fancy sidebars, toolbars, widgets, sprockets, and doodads have probably turned the text into a mess.

Now, imagine you are blind.

If you live in the United Sates, you’re now one of an estimated 7 million who have some form of blindness or visual impairment.

You would be forced into using a screen-reading program that needs to parse that webpage, make sense of it, and speak each part back to you. For many of today’s websites, it’s not difficult to see why such programs might have a hard time. Which part does it read first? How can it help you skip around to the section you want? What about that picture? It looks like you are screwed.

Maybe not. Thanks to the The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and other legislation since then, there’s been a strong mandate to bring Federal services within reach of all those with disabilities. In other words, those services were to be made accessible.

Even in areas where accessibility is not required by law, it’s important to remember that disabled users are still users. There is no reason to discount them as potential customers when having accessibility is easy to achieve through the use of existing tools and guidelines.

Tools We Can Use

In 1998, revisions to that aforementioned Act brought about specific guidelines that apply to computer use and the Internet specifically. Many of the guidelines will go a long way towards making your site screen-readable.

Most of them are simple, really. Here are just a few to get you thinking.

  • Don’t use color as the only distinguishing feature between two elements. This is why links are usually blue and underlined.
  • Include text descriptions of images. (For example: Each XKCD comic includes an extra punchline in its “alt” text.)
  • Keep all of your styling information on a separate style sheet, so that you’re left with just the main content of the page in the HTML file.
  • Rearrange the HTML source so that it accurately reflects the order in which the page should be read.
  • Accurately use header and emphasis tags instead of just styling the font (as with “bold” or “text-size”).

In short, keep your HTML beautiful.

There are lots and lots of areas to cover, but WebAIM is going to be one of your best resources for web accessibility information. They even provide a list of tools to automatically check your website for common accessibility problems, including a tool of their own.

What about my iPhone or Android app?

Android provides documentation for helping developers dictate how external navigation controls like arrow keys can control one’s application. Unfortunately, actual text-to-speech is not a standard part of Android, but there are services available for free in the Android Market that can help.

Apple’s iOS seems to provide the more robust solution using its built-in VoiceOver technology, which they also have in Mac OS X. Watch this video demonstrating how VoiceOver works on the iPhone. It’s quite extraordinary, and available for both websites and native applications. Matt Gemmell of Instinctive Code wrote a fantastic overview of accessibility in iPhone and iPad apps that is worth a read for anyone interested in iOS development.

Accessible doesn’t necessarily mean Usable

We’ve mostly covered just visual disability, but other disabilities can affect technology use as well. These include motor and cognitive disabilities.

Even then, the site or application isn’t automatically usable. When we talk about Usability, we typically mean a measure of intuitiveness and efficiency. It affects all users, but how we can deal with usability problems will have to wait for another time.


Michał Sterzycki

Michał has spent over 10 years ensuring end-users and administrators alike have the best experience possible, in both consumer- and enterprise-level applications. He anticipates what they want, before they want it.

If you catch him in the hallway, he will likely wax prophetic on the nature of software and hardware design. He watches the software and mobile industries, closely monitoring trends. He also dabbles in film criticism, gaming, history, and religious study.

Michał graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor's Degree in both Information Technology and Psychology, with a concentration in Software Usability. Figures.

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