In its infancy, the internet was nothing more than a handful of computers hardwired into a simple network passing packets of innocuous data back and forth. Now the internet is everywhere, it provides us with our binge worthy TV shows, it enables us to shop from the comfort of our own homes, it lets us connect with people from all over the globe, it provides us with a forum to have our voices heard, and so much more.
The internet has radically changed the way that we access, understand and use information, but what about those people who have difficulties accessing web content?
For people with disabilities the internet is a double edged sword. On one side, it grants easy access to services, products and information that, due to impairments in mobility, vision, hearing or cognition, would otherwise be inaccessible.
On the other side, the internet is still far from fully accessible. People with disabilities continue to be frustrated by barriers in web accessibility. These issues, either through ignorance or apathy, are often overlooked by website owners or developers.
This article will show you just how easy it is to make your website accessible to everyone. It will show you what web accessibility is, why it is important to, not only people with disabilities but to you as a website owner, how people with disabilities access the internet, and how a few simple steps will make your site web accessible.
What is web accessibility?
The internet is accessed by almost everyone including people with disabilities, elder generations as well as individuals who may lack computer literacy. Web accessibility is the practice of designing sites that may be accessed by anyone irrespective of levels of sight, hearing or cognitive capacity.
Websites developed without web accessibility in mind will not only exclude potential customers with disabilities but will most likely be unintuitive and ineffective for your website visitors as a whole.
Why web accessibility is important to you
The internet is vast. With so many competing websites it is essential to gain any advantage you can. As with their peers, people with disabilities are consumers. They have needs for services, products and information but poor web accessibility can be a barrier to people with disabilities engaging with what your website has to offer.
Practicing good web accessibility opens your website to a larger demographic which will increase your number of customers, readers, contributors or how ever you define your website conversions.
Furthermore, your accessible website, due to its intuitive structure and descriptive nature, will be better optimised for search engines ranking you higher than competitors who do not practice web accessibility.
How people with disabilities access the web
Accessible hardware and software are the means by which people with disabilities interact with the world, including the internet. Unfortunately, such technology has always lagged behind the rapidly evolving mainstream industries. However, the lag is lessening as industry leaders are now starting to take greater interest in accessibility for people with disabilities.
Tech giants such as Apple, Google and Amazon are now integrating accessible technology into their products and services meaning that individuals with disabilities now have choices in the market place for technology that is comparable to their peers.
Screen readers, the means by which visually impaired individuals access computers and mobile devices, use synthesised speech to describe the content of the screen. Screen readers such as Voiceover on the Mac or Jaws on Windows, as well as screen-readers for mobile devices, allow blind and visually impaired people to access the internet through apps and web browsers.
Screen readers, despite being powerful tools for visually impaired computer users, do have their limitations.
Too often websites rely on images to convey their message and though artificial intelligence is getting better at recognising the content of images, a comprehensive solution is still a way off. At present, verbal descriptions of the image are the most accessible way for you to convey your message to screen reader users.
As with screen readers, magnifiers are designed for the visually impaired with some useable sight. Simply put, a magnifier is a software based magnifying glass that can be manipulated to zoom in on different parts of the screen. Fonts and images designed for the general public can be expanded to become viewable by people with low vision though, as with the screen readers, there are limitations.
Using a magnifier can be laborious and often means that the user misses the “bigger picture”. Such pinhole examination of a website means that it is difficult to understand how objects, images or passages of text might be inter-related. Such issues can often be avoided by intuitively constructed sites that are well structured and links that can jump your visitor to specific content within the page.
Solutions for the hard of hearing
For the most part content on the internet is visual, however, in some cases, such as videos, people with hearing difficulties can be affected. Many devices now offer compatibility with hearing-aids and allow for a degree of sound processing. For people with profound hearing loss technologies such as intelligent transcription allow them to have an almost instantaneous textual translation of dialogue.
There are however drawbacks. Dictation software is still prone to error and not all devices are compatible with hearing aids. The best practice, as with screen reader users, is to have text that compliments the video or audio content. In this case, a transcription of dialogue means that hearing impaired people can still receive your message.
Mobility impairment solutions
People with limited motion can also access computers and the web through a variety of devices such as simplified keyboards controlled by just one hand, devices that follow head gestures or cameras that register eye blinks.
Naturally, this technology is far more restricted than solutions for people with visual impairments or hearing difficulties. The limitations in the number of motions means that there is less scope for commands as one might have if using a full keyboard and mouse.
In this case, overly busy websites with multiple links and lots of content can be slow to navigate. Instead of having everything on one page it is good to consider breaking up content into different pages. Fewer commands, such as key strokes, means that people with restricted motion can get to specific information on your website far quicker.
Though mainstream voice assistance such as Alexa, Siri or Google Now, are not specifically designed for people with disabilities, they are still accessible tools.
The ability to command a device to read and write messages, read web pages, set appointments and place calls is not only useful to individuals who are visually impaired or have restricted mobility, but is useful to people who are unable to physically or visually interact with a device such as drivers.
Though they promise an exciting future, voice assistants are still restricted and though some can read websites out loud, navigation of pages isn’t yet possible. When writing pages it is important to have a solid overview of the page first. This means that visitors are not having to listen for an extended period only to find that the page didn’t contain the information that they were after.
Steps to make your site web accessible
There are just a few simple steps you need to take to make your site accessible to as many people as possible. Once you get into the habit of creating pages with web accessibility in mind your website will not only perform better with SEO but will also be a more pleasurable experience for all of your website visitors.
Label links well
The last thing you want are lost website visitors. Make sure that links have understandable non-ambiguous titles as well as any nice graphics, so that visitors know where they are headed.
Introduce your pages
It is good practice to introduce each page with a summary of its content. Using screen-readers and other adaptive technology can be very slow, telling visitors what the page is all about as soon as they land on it helps to avoid reading through content that isn’t important to them.
Google also likes it when you explain what the page is about so it knows to send people in your direction when they search for related keywords.
Headings are an excellent way to structure your content. They provide your pages with structure and make them easier to scan by sighted visitors. Headings also work better with screen-readers allowing visually impaired visitors to your website to jump easily from one heading to another.
As well as making your pages read better, headings are good ways of telling Google what your page or website is all about improving your SEO.
Use alt text for images
Screen readers cannot interpret images. Instead your markup can include alternative text or “Alt Text” to describe the image. By implementing alt text you are making sure that screen reader users are not missing out on important content and, as a bonus, Google likes alt text too thereby improving your SEO.
Images are a good way of instantly conveying an idea, however, your visitors who cannot see the images may miss your message. As well as including alt text with your images, it is a good practice to be verbal regarding your offerings. Remember to sell your idea, product or service with words as well as images.
The more you write about your product, idea or service, the more Google will know what your website is all about, again helping that all important SEO.
If you include videos such as how-to’s, testimonials or adverts, provide a transcript. This makes the verbal content of the video accessible to not only individuals with hearing loss, but people who don’t want to either watch the video or listen to the audio such as a person in an office environment. Google also appreciates more text content on a page further improving your SEO.
Animations and images that your visitors can manipulate with their mouse may be visually exciting but are not web accessible. Most of the previously discussed accessibility software such as screen readers and restricted mobility solutions, rely heavily on keyboard control. It is important to make sure that a visitor can move through and access every part of your website using the keyboard.
Offer a mobile site
More and more, websites are being accessed from mobile devices. By creating a simplified mobile version of your site you are not only creating a better user experience for visitors using smartphones and tablets, but creating a portal which can be far more accessible to people with disabilities.
Boiling your site down to just a few links, removing non-essential images and content helps visually impaired visitors to get a faster overview of your business, older visitors not to be overwhelmed with content and for people with limited mobility to have a page that is simpler to navigate.
Ready to implement web accessibility?
You’ve created a great site, you have something to say, why not say it to as many people as you can?
With a few simple amendments to your pages you can implement web accessibility. Why not open up your message to a whole new demographic of people who, like their sited peers, are consumers of products, services, media and information.
Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.Read full profile