Under UK law web-site owners have a responsibility to make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that their websites are accessible to people regardless of their abilities, or disabilities. Reasonable will mean different things to different organisations and with different budgets. A good level of accessibility can however be achieved with very little if any additional cost.
This article poses some questions - and simple tests - that you can apply to your own web-site. The tests are based on the Firefox browser with the excellent "Accessibility Extension" installed. Unfortunately there is no equivalent plug-in for Internet Explorer.
Think of the questions posed here as a mini audit of your site. If you'd like us to take a more thorough look for you then please ask about our accessibility audit.
1. Can the user change the text size?
Test : Increase the browser font-size using "View - Text Size - Increase" from the Firefox view menu. Does the size of the font increase? Does the design still work?
Analysis : Don't settle on a design that forces the clients browser to see text at a specific size. The web standards make this possible but to do so makes life very difficult for many people with visual impairments. Bear in mind that some users will want to increase the font size in order to more easily view your site. Care in design can ensure that the site still looks good with larger fonts.
2. Offer alternative styles
Test : Can a site visitor change the appearance of your web-site to improve readability?
Analysis : A web-site is your on-line shop front. You want it to look as good as it possibly can. Use colour, imagery and possible sound (sparingly!) to get across your message. That visually great design for 90% of your visitors will be incomprehensible to the other other 10%, which could be the buyers! Offer alternative styles for those people - often just a simple simple high contrast textual view will be sufficient - selectable from your accessibility menu.
3. Allow keyboard users to visit your site
Test : Try to navigate your web-site without using your mouse. You should be able to use the 'Tab' key to move around fields on forms and between links. Are there short-cut keys to skip the menu? To move to the menu? To get to the home page?
Analysis : The web was developed with the point-and-click mentality of the mouse at its heart. Many people however find use of a mouse difficult. Providing keyboard access is one of the easier things you can do to your site for the disabled visitor. Firstly you can configure 'short-cut' keys to take people directly to specific pages on your site, or to a specific area of a page - for example skipping menus directly to the page copy. Secondly make sure your web designer configures a sensible 'tab order' for your site. This allows people to repeatedly press the Tab key on their keyboard to step through links and controls.
4. Consider screen readers
Test : Using the Firefox "View - Page Style" menu item and choose 'no style'. The results will show you how a screen-reader will 'speak' the page.
Analysis : Screen readers extract plain text from a web page and 'speaks' it - converting the written word to sound, ignoring visual aspects. Screen readers do have some limitations that are not shared by a human reader. Look at a typical web-page and the first thing you see is a banner, a menu, potentially date and time and other elements. Only then do you reach the content. Your eyes quickly skip all of this but screen readers do not. Several techniques are available that make things easier.
5. Forms and data collection
Test : Using the Firebox accessibility menu select to 'Navigation - Forms' menu option. Make sure each form has a clear title and that when you select each form, that all the elements within that form have clear labels.
Analysis : Entering data onto a web-form can be a particular challenge for many people. Visually a form can look very simple. As you scan the page you see a field for your name, email address and a submit button. To a screen reader this may appear completely differently - it may be impossible to work out which field is for their name and which for email address. To make your forms accessible ensure that each control is clearly labelled and that the purpose of the form is clearly identified.
6. Clearly identify you site navigation
Test : Using the Firebox accessibility menu select to "Navigation - Menus and Navigation Bars&qout; menu option. Ensure that all menus have bee correctly location, that each has a title and that each link within a menu has clear descriptive text.
Analysis : Most web pages comprise a copy area and a common site navigation system - a menu structure. Visually menus are very easy to spot - so much so that it's easy to miss the fact that automated technology cannot distinguish a menu from any other set of links on a page. Ensure that your menus are clearly identified to your users so they can find their way either to them, or to skip over them.
7. Drop-down menus
Analysis : Many sites employ 'drop-down' or 'pull out' menus. From a web-site owners perspective these menus save valuable page layout space and can (when done well) provide a familiar navigation technique. Web standards (e.g. HTML) do not however support menus in this way. The solution is for the web developer to use 'scripts' - small programmes that run in the users browser. Many of these are written without considering accessibility. Generally we recommend that people avoid these menu systems unless they can be shown to be accessible.
8. Images and multi-media
Test : The Firebox 'Text Equivalents' menu will show non-textual elements of a web-page along with the text equivalents that will be read-out by screen-readers. Ensure that each element provides suitable text alternative.
Analysis : A picture paints a thousand words. Unfortunately for the visually impaired none of those words can actually be seen unless the web author explicitly places them on the page. Images are used for two distinct purpose in web pages. In the overall visual layout of a page they are used as 'furniture' to make a page look good to a visual reader. To someone using non-visual access techniques these images are irrelevant. The other use is as part of the message being conveyed by the page. In this latter case it is very important that there be a textual equivalent of the image, or for that matter of the video or the sound clip.
9. Label your pages
Test : Look at the title bar in your browser. It should clearly display the purpose of the page. If a title for the page has not been set the title bar will show the URL of the page. Other common mistakes including leaving the title of the web-page simply the name of the site (which the visitor already knows!)
Analysis : We have already said that screen readers do not understand the structure of a page and simply read - from the start to the end. There is almost invariably some clutter in the page before the main copy and accessing content can be slower than visually glancing at the page. This can become annoying if you work your way through to the page copy only to discover that it's not the page you want. Avoid this by clearly labelling and describing your page.
10. Use technologies with care
No test for this one! If you've addressed the issues discussed above then you're well on the way to an accessible website. Remember to consider other elements that you're making available via your website and remember to also address those in an accessible way. Are you adding PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) or Microsoft Word documents to your site? PDF documents for example can often be impenetrable to applications like screen readers. Either make sure your PDF documents are correctly formatted for your disabled visitors or provide the same content in alternative formats, for example as web pages.
Applying the tests above to your web-site should give you a good overview of the accessibility of your site. Note that it's quite possible to pass all the automated tests and still fail a number of the above tests!
Remember that these tests should be applied to all pages on your web-site - not just your home page!
If you'd like the discuss the accessibility of your site then please get in touch. We can provide top-level audits of your site to cover both accessility and searchability. We can make recommendations that you can then take to your web-developers.