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«Return to Blog List Paying Attention to Website Accessibility

Web accessibility has to do with making websites accessible and usable for everyone, regardless of abilities or disabilities. Most of the techniques for making websites accessible are easy to do and don’t take much time, but many websites are minimally or not at all accessible. There are laws in place to ensure that public and commercial buildings include access for disabled people, but in the US, there are no laws requiring commercial websites to be accessible, yet (Britain has had such laws since 2004). US government or government-funded agency websites are subject to Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but I’m not aware of any agency that has lost funding due to non-compliance (if you know of a case where penalties have been applied, please let me know).

I don’t believe there is a conscious attempt to make websites inaccessible. I believe the problem is simply a lack of awareness of what accessibility means to disabled people and how easy it is to make websites accessible. Also, older approaches to web design (for example, the old slice-and-dice method promoted and enabled by Fireworks) resulted in particularly poor accessibility. Those types of approaches were meant to make sure a website looked the same to everyone in all browsers, but they left out people with perceptual disabilities, making some of the information "inaccessible" to them. Website accessibility does not mean the site looks the same to everyone in your audience: it means the information is available to everyone. What good is "looks the same" to a blind visitor?

The first step toward accessibility is to build websites that are standards-compliant. Good, clean markup with all style elements defined in CSS is fundamental. Second, semantic markup is a great help, and the use of XHTML is a start in that direction. These days, thankfully, you cannot credibly promote yourself as a competent or professional web designer if you don’t use CSS/XHTML. If your website was built that way, you’ve taken some steps toward accessibility, and I would consider that the minimally acceptable approach. However, there are still a remarkable number of websites built with CSS/XHTML that use fonts specified in absolute units (pixels) as opposed to relative units (ems). This will not be a problem as IE6 passes from the scene, but that will be a while.

It gets a bit more complex when you attempt to enhance the user interface with jQuery or other javascript. None of the online accessibility validation tools I’ve found seem to be able to recognize the difference between obtrusive and unobtrusive javascript, or whether or not the page is dependent on the javascript to reveal information. So the page is given a warning, at best, or failed (most of Evo’s websites get less than spotless accessibility evaluations for this reason). Even Google Analytics code on the page triggers a warning or failure. It’s tempting for developers, with these kinds of results, to quit caring about accessibility.

But it’s best to use these tools for pointing out potential problems to evaluate, rather than take the results at face value. In the above example, further investigation may be in order with the Firefox Web Developer tool, turning off javascript. If doing so makes content on your site unviewable, your site is utilizing javascript in an obtrusive, inaccessible manner. Not good. However, if all content remains viewable, and only presentation is affected, the chances are javascript is not affecting accessibility.

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