Accessibility Options - Resources and Facts

We can talk all day long and all night long about ideological worlds where we design every website to compensate for every disability. However, where does that get us? I'm a big person on research... and I do most of it via the web. When something confused me, I research it, when something interests me, I research it... when something is drawn to my attention, I research it. So, you know what the first thing is I did when I heard a conversation about web accessibility in response to underlines under hyperlinks? I researched it.

It's impossible to design to every little disability on the face of the planet and make everything perfect... not if you want to be creative in your design, at least. It would require all pages to have a white background, all links to be blue/purple, no images to be used, no tables to be used, no frames to be used, and *DEFINATELY* no JavaScript, Plug-Ins, Java, or anything that is not server compliant. That would be difficult, and to say the least... boring. I got curious, and was wondering what sorts of tools were available for the disabled, and I found out some interesting things:

pwWebSpeak: I suggest anyone who is going to design a site that they believe blind people will be hitting (or that they want open to everyone out there) check out this little program. The web browser is designed to use speach to help out the browser. It 'speaks' out the text that is there (and, according to their web site, handles braile output). The browser itself is very ordinary, since there is no need for any special formatting since the user won't see it. It shuts off colors, images, and everything else. What it looks like is what you see via Lynx. When it reads out the text, it reads it out like such:

"Welcome to my homepage. Please take some time to fill out my LINK form. If you have any questions, contact LINK me."

It doesn't freak out if there are no underlines because it reads links as a link. It's a very nice little program, and frankly fun to play with. It was interesting to see how it handled various web sites.

Design Tips for Speach-Enabled Web Browsers: The best clues for this is how you handle links. It's best to describe your links thoroughly, but succinctly. Too much text on the page takes too long for it to read out, and can cause the reader to become bored (I did for a few sites, particularly amazon, which has way too many boring links). Links should be descriptive (the W3C WAI talks more about exactly how to do this). Bottom line - If your site fails gracefully in Lynx, you're on the right track.

Bobby: If you don't have hard drive space, cash or a lot of time to download disabled web accessibility software, then consider Bobby. He will run through your site using the W3C WAI guidelines and make sure that you have everything set up right. If you don't, he'll let you know what needs to be fixed, and give suggestions. If you do have it set up alright, he'll still make suggestions on things to add, and stuff you can always improve on, and he'll give you an option to download and use a button that lets everyone know that Bobby approved your site.

I also went around and searched for a bit of information (and also thought) on what can be done by the *end user* when it comes to disabilities. Actually, there are a *lot* of things that an end user can do to change everything they see on the web with both types of browsers. Here are some options:

Blind: pwWebSpeak as listed above will read out the pages to the blind user and/or convert them over for a braile reader to offer the page to the user.

ColorBlind: Colorblind does not necessarily mean that the person can not see color all together. The W3C WAI guidelines state that you should not rely on color alone to navigate through a site, and when relying on color for anything (links, and so on), always use colors that contrast quite a bit from the background of the site.

Other Options for Colorblindness: Since not every site (particularly personal ones) is going to be perfectly set up with colorblind folks in mind, there are things that can be done in the browser. Both Netscape and IE offer a way for the user to change the colors and the background to their liking. They can see all pages with a white background and blue, underlined links if they see fit.

Sight Impairment: Again, pwWebSpeak (and other browsers like it) can help major sight impaired individuals get the most out of the web. However, there are programs that will let those with some sight still see the web.

Magnification: Many OSes, Video Cards and 3rd Party Utilities come with options to somehow 'magnify' the page. In this way, it'll be larger and easier for the individual to read.

Browser Capabilities: Both major browsers offer the ability to change what font is displayed, and at what size it is displayed. MSIE offers an option where a 'font' button can be placed on the toolbar so that the user can raise and lower the font size as he/she sees fit. Both browsers also come with the ability to fully navigate the web via the keyboard only. This means tabbing through links, and hitting enter to follow them.

In any case, when it comes to the user having an eyesight disability for some reason, the aforementioned 'underlined links' discussion that so many people got hot and bothered about in the past is moot. Taking off the link underlines requires the HTML coder to use Cascading Style Sheet statements. These statements are removed all together and failed out of in speaking browsers. For all other folks (say colorblind ones), there is the option to disable the use of style sheets all together, or to make link colors always be a specific color, and backgrounds as well.

However, it is general consensus that removing the underlines on links should be a practice used sparingly (if at all) due to the affects it has on people who are very used to clicking on underlined links. An effective example of using links without under

Actually, pwWebspeak is no longer produced. My personal recommendation, if you want to try a web site using actual access software is to download a screen reader such as JAWS for Windows or Windoweyes and try it with Internet Explorer. Both of these programs have special modes for presenting the page to the user, making use of Microsoft Active Accessibility to decolumnize the page and present it in a special buffer that can be moved through much like a word processor. This is how most blind people access the web.

My personal experience is that these programs handle things like frames, tables and the like a lot better then the W3C would make it sound. Quite frankly, if you use good HTML and common sense, your page will probably work just fine.

With regards to Bobby, while it is a great tool, Bobby is far from the definitive word on accessibility. Just because a page is bobby approved does not mean it is totally accessible, and just because a page is not bobby approved doesn't mean it is unusable by someone with a disability.

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