Another way of looking at accessibility

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Posted on: 10 September 2003

Lorraine Ireland contacted us about her experiences of learning about web accessibility, having been in the business of selling adaptive technology for a number of years. We thought that it deserved somewhere more public than a personal email, so here's what Lorraine had to say. [Note: as a beginner to the topic, Lorraine may have different views from more experienced web accessibility afficionados - use the forum to clarify anything raised here.]

I have to confess I have only recently found accessify.com and have been delighted to read how much attention designers and developers are paying to the production of accessible and screen-reader friendly web sites. I have a vested interest in your work. I am the director of Electronic Aids for the Blind which is a small UK-wide charity that provides specially adapted computers to people who are registered blind or partially-sighted. As well as providing the computers we also run an informal telephone and email help-desk service to help visually impaired people get the most out of their equipment.

Our existing web site http://www.eabnet.org.uk was developed by me about 2 years ago and was my first attempt at a web site. I used a table-based layout - didn't everyone back then? and relied almost exclusively on FrontPage for the coding - excruciatingly bad isn't it? However, for all the site's faults, it works with the three major screen-readers we are asked to provide: JAWS, Hal and WindowEyes and it was free, we are a charity after all. It also works in "another way" of which more later ...

Redeveloping the site

Taking my lead from web accessibility gurus, I am currently redeveloping the site in XHTML/CSS in which I am a complete novice. The plan is no tables except unavoidable data tables, access keys, context logical layout, skips to navigation/content, lists of items for navigation, relative rather than absolute sizes and positioning. It will remain a simple site, nothing cute or avant-garde. It will, probably, never validate fully under all these letters of the alphabet seen on some sites (W3C, AAA and the like) and it most certainly will never be a model of perfect code. However, the first few pages have validated to XHTML1.0 Strict and the single (at the moment) style sheet also validates. So that's a good start - but then I tested it with the three most popular screen-readers in the UK ...

JAWS/Connect Outloud behaved impeccably, WindowEyes is fine, but the second most popular screen-reader (according to how many of our beneficiaries ask for it) is Hal and Hal made a complete mockery of all my hard work. The main UK distributor of Hal is Dolphin Computer Access (free demo version available from http://www.dolphinuk.co.uk ). Dolphin tell me their product "works best with layout tables". Incidentally it doesn't work at all with a CSS structured page - it just reads left to right across the page ... links, body text, alt text on every wrap around line and anything else in its path. So how on earth can I spend charitable donations to buy this product for my clients if it won't even work on our new web site? To be fair to Dolphin, though, once I pointed this out to them and referred them to a few table-less websites they took the point and will try to address more of the page code rather than concentrate on the on-screen visuals in their next major release, whenever that will be.

Nevertheless, it is clear that totally blind people are or will be well catered for by accessible design techniques as time goes on.

But what about the others? There are estimated to be around 2 million in the UK with significant sight loss. The number of people who are totally blind is a tiny minority of all those who suffer sight loss. Many people who are registered blind still retain some useful vision and want to use their sight as long as possible. Most people who are registered partially-sighted are able to use computers with magnification. Many can't afford the very expensive specialised magnification software and, if they have Windows XP, they will use MS Magnifier, perhaps with a bit of Narrator thrown in, but neither is ideal.

Then there are the roughly 3 in 5 of us who will experience sight problems as we age. Been there, got the specs! So there must be a huge demand for "visually accessible" web sites. Throw in, for good measure, the very many people with restricted movement and poor manual dexterity who would benefit from "physically accessible" web sites. I understand the grand total of people with some form of disability in the UK is around 8.5 million.

I don't think the needs of all these people are being fully considered in the "great accessibility debate". The solution could be simple, if only ...

In my work at the charity and voluntary work helping (even) older people learn computers and the Internet, I have found one of the potentially best tools for visual and physical accessibility of web sites is the browser. In accessibility debates there is the occasional mention of increasing text size in Internet Explorer and an apparent tendency to discount this because many web designers use absolute sizing of text. But a quick visit to Tools, Internet Options, Accessibility, select Ignore font sizes specified on web pages, then back to View, Increase text size will overcome that "design feature". Netscape Navigator offers options for even larger text sizes. So that's visual accessibility sorted out, but big fonts also provide big link areas (provided the designer is not addicted to pretty pictures) and big link areas will help those with physical difficulties to hit the correct link more easily and accurately.

How many designers are comfortable with the prospect that site visitors may well use infinitely variable text sizes? How many designers would simply expect those who use large text sizes to keep scrolling the screen horizontally to read to the end of each line?

So come with me on a journey ...

During an occasional spare half-hour, in the interests of research of course, I will set up IE to ignore font sizes and with the largest text size, maximise the screen and go a'surfin. I use IE because it is the most popular, if least able, but similar fun can be had with NN and Opera. My screen is a 15" inch TFT at 1024x768 pixels. It is often argued (mostly by suppliers) that visually-impaired people need very large monitors. That is not necessarily so as the viewer has to go through a lot of head/body movement to scan across the screen. Many people with poor sight will also set their screen resolution to 800x600 pixels or even lower if their monitor is sufficiently old enough. Some also limit their viewing area further with a side bar like IE Favourites or NN sidebar.

It was during one of these mad half-hours that I found accessify.com, visited some of the featured sites in http://www.accessify.com/articles/attractive-accessible-sites.asp and was moved to write to Ian. I will leave it to you to try some of them out in large text, with and without a reasonable-width side bar. As in the featured sites, the following sites are perfectly OK when viewed as designed. They are not inherently inaccessible and probably fine examples of code, but I point them out merely to show what can happen to a well crafted visual design that, I suspect, a little jigging of the style sheet may well overcome.

Why not try some of your favourite sites. Do they work in large text? If so, do they use tables or frames? Found any CSS sites that don't work? Some sites may work on large monitors with very high resolution but not too many visually and physically impaired people can afford such state of the art technology and, of course, the higher the resolution the tinier the text starts out.

One site featured in accessify.com that comes in for a little (but very well taken) criticism is http://www.designory.co.uk. It may not be a model of accessibility or coding - who am I to tell - but it certainly works for those who use large text and it's no slouch with JAWS/Connect Outloud and WindowEyes either. So just what is an accessible web site then?

Lorraine has been with Electronic Aids for the Blind for 6 years. Prior to that she spent over 30 years with a major British bank, where she was responsible, among other things, for introducing Executive Information Systems. At one time a conference speaker and lecturer specialising in the visual presentation of information on a computer monitor, it is ironic that she now works for people who can't see much, if anything, on the screen.