At Yahoo Anecdotal today Yahoo announced that they had recently opened the Yahoo Accessibility Lab; a place where only Yahoo employees (for now) can experience the world of the Internet as a disabled web surfer would.

The blog posting also states:

"In addition to simulating the disabled experience, the Accessibility Lab also provides a growing collection of books and videos that we hope will help visitors become more comfortable with the culture of disability. And help Yahoos keep disabled kids and adults clearly in mind as they design and code."
Congratulations Yahoo for taking the reigns and raising awareness of such an under-served topic. Now I am the first to admit that I have no concept of how difficult it must be to navigate the web with a disability. That said, I would love to get a sense of such an experience to provide valuable perspective when I create my own websites and to consult clients on their designs.

My friend Lee Roberts over at MerchantMetrix is an authority on website accessibility and through him I have learned a lot about just how difficult it can be to make a website accessible; however, difficult or not it must be done. There is simply no denying it is important to raise the awareness of this sizable demographic and Yahoo has taken a commendable step in that direction.

To quote Tim Berners-Lee the inventor of the World Wide Web:

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.

What Accessibility Requires
Here is a summary of the 14 guidelines a website would have to follow in order to become officially accessible according to the W3C's Checklist for Web Accessibility Guidelines:

  • Guideline 1.  Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
    This covers such elements as the proper use of ALT attributes, adding redundant text link navigation for image maps, creating auditory equivalents of multimedia presentations (explaining what is happening in the presentation), etc.

  • Guideline 2.  Don't rely on color alone.
    If color alone is used to distinguish essential elements of a page then this must be changed to provide accessibility to the color-blind.

  • Guideline 3.  Use markup and style sheets and do so properly
    Do not fix incompatibilities your website has with particular browsers using poor markup because this can confuse accessibility-based navigation/reading software.

  • Guideline 4.  Clarify natural language usage
    Properly specify the natural language of a document and note if and where a change to the natural language is made. Also in the markup provide expansions on acronyms and abbreviations so that screen readers can adequately decipher their meaning.

  • Guideline 5.  Create tables that transform gracefully.
    Tables should only be used to properly present data tables where necessary; not for page layout. In addition there are certain accessibility tags that should be used when implementing a table.

  • Guideline 6.  Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
    Ensure that your website can still be read even if significant technologies are disabled by the viewer (i.e. disabled Javascript or stylesheets).

  • Guideline 7.  Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
    Flashing, blinking, moving content must have the capacity to be disabled or frozen to increase accessibility for visitors with sensitivities to visual stimuli.

  • Guideline 8.  Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
    Script and applets must have an alternative form of navigation if they are not accessible in their own right.

  • Guideline 9.  Design for device-independence.
    Ensure that your website does not offer barriers to any of the major devices that disabled visitors may use to navigate or interact with your website.

  • Guideline 10.  Use interim solutions.
    Certain limitations exist in browsers that currently have no established 'fix'. This section of the guidelines provides sanctioned interim solutions for these problematic areas.

  • Guideline 11.  Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
    To ensure maximum compatibility with current and future accessibility requirements it is recommended that everyone follow the W3C guidelines when designing a website.

  • Guideline 12.  Provide context and orientation information.
    Where complex relationships exist between parts of a page it is important to provide descriptive text outlining the relationship.

  • Guideline 13.  Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
    Ensure your website includes clear navigation formats such as textual navigation and sitemaps so that users have a better chance of finding what they are looking for.

  • Guideline 14.  Ensure that documents are clear and simple.
    Make sure the language is clear and concise, the formatting and layout is consistent throughout the website, and always provide alternative descriptions to graphical content for the blind or visually impaired.

Most of Us with Web Sites Have a Lot of Work To Do
After compiling that list I feel disconcerted because I know of few websites that can safely say they are 75% accessible never mind 100%; including my own I am embarrassed to say. Something has to be done to incentivize designers and web site owners to make accessibility a priority. Perhaps Google should jump on board and provide a deadline for all sites to be compliant (or else); not a popular solution I am sure but it would sure get our butts in gear!

More Information on Website Accessibility
I have a lot to learn about accessibility and perhaps you do as well. Here are some websites that go into more depth on this topic:

July 24, 2008

Ross Dunn is the CEO of StepForth Web Marketing Inc., a web marketing company founded in 1997 and based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. StepForth provides cutting-edge search engine optimization services that provide highly successful, targeted results for its clientele. Ross Dunn is a Certified Internet Marketing and Business Strategist (CIMBS) with a background in web design and business management. His broad Internet experience in combination with a talented staff has made StepForth a name synonymous with top results.

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