Constructing Accessible Web Sites

Posted on: 03 January 2003


Cover design of Accessible Web SitesWhile there are plenty of useful and very thorough sources of reference on the world wide web for web site accessibility, you just can't beat having a book by your side. But which book should you buy?

For a long time, my reference book has been Mike Paciello's "Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities". This is for the sole reason that when I was looking for a book, this was the only one available on Amazon. However, times have moved on and there are now a number of books available covering web accessibility, and if I'm perfectly honest the Paciello book is getting a little dated now. Cue 'Accessible Web Sites' from Glasshaus.

Topics covered

The book has a wide variety of topics which take it beyond the simple guides to web accessibility that I have read to date. A glance through the index page shows that the publishers have really thought about what they want in this book - that's not to say that they've tried to be a 'jack of all trades and master of none', as every topic is covered thoroughly leaving few questions unanswered. What caught my eye was that the chapter headings were covering the topics that seem to get people in a spin most often. Got trouble with forms? Then skip to chapter 6. Not sure how you test the site, move on to chapter 7. Let's take a closer look at the content of these chapters.

Chapter 1 - Understanding Web Accessibility

The first chapter really sets the scene by explaining what web accessibility is about, and gives many reasons why it should be taken seriously. For example, by demonstrating the proportion of users - or potential customers - that you are not catering for; by explaining some of the legal implications, citing examples such as the Sydney 2000 Olympics web site and the litigation that followed; by demonstrating how costly it can become coding different versions of a site for specific browsers instead of 'designing for all'.

Chapter 2 - Overview of Law and Guidelines

Now we really start to get into the nuts and bolts of the various laws that exist to protect disabled people, and how these affect the web. The author of this chapter, Cynthia Waddell, explains the laws as they exist in different countries and goes into further detail about specific cases (such as the Sydney case). These are not intended to scare people, I'm sure, but if a senior manager were to read these pages it would probably make them think more carefully about how much effort their goes into making their company's site accessible.

Chapter 3 - Assistive Technology Browsers and Accessibility

Newcomers to the world of web accessibility may be from a range of backgrounds, but most likely they will be web developers or designers, the people responsible for those developers or designers or senior management types. Almost none of them, most likely, will have serious sight defects and will probably not know a screen reader from a news reader (one reads out the text on their computer screen, the other reads the news on the television). This chapter covers the history of assistive technology from Braille readers to the more up-to-date screen readers such as Jaws and IBM Home Page Reader, explaining how the different pieces of software behave and comparing their individual merits.

Chapter 4 - Creating Accessible Content

The meaty part of this meal - how you 'actually do stuff'. This is where people are told that they should use the alt attribute (and how to for each case), that they should make tables more accessible and all with practical examples. But that's not all …

Chapter 5 - Accessible Navigation

What good is accessible content if you have to wade through reams of navigation to get there? This chapter shows techniques for making web pages easier to navigate through for people with visual and motor impairments, explaining how skip navigation links can help and why mouse-based navigation alone won't work.

Chapter 6 - Accessible Data Input

Forms are another area that cause major headaches for blind users - trying to enter data when you don't really know the question (or worse, when you are putting the data into the completely wrong form input because of shoddy layout) is a big challenge. A bigger challenge is getting developers to understand how they are causing these headaches and encouraging them to do things another way. Once again, there are plenty of practical examples that show how forms can be more made more accessible alongside some interesting transcripts of some of the screen readers to demonstrate how a form sounds to a blind user. Also worth noting is the inclusion of PDF forms - not renowned for their high levels of accessibility, the PDF form benefits from a few helpful pointers too.

Chapter 7 - Testing for Section 508 Compliance

Having read up on how to put things right, people will want to know whether they have got things right where accessibility is concerned. There are a number of tools available to help with this - not all of them free, mind - and they are all covered in this section. One small point is that Bobby has changed since this chapter was written and there is no longer a downloadable version of the that particular tool, and the free online service has its limitations. Lift, a plug-in for DreamWeaver and FrontPage, has also had something of a facelift since this chapter went to print and The Wave is now in version 3 (albeit beta). Nonetheless, the respective strengths of each testing tool are not much changed.

Chapter 8 - Web Development Tools and Accessibility

A useful chapter for anyone considering buying authoring software - the major packages are put under examination and scored for how accessible the code they produce is, and how accessible the tools are themselves. Not surprisingly, there's some way to go until the software does the job properly! This is a chapter that, like chapter 7, is likely to have a shorter shelf life.

Chapter 9 - Separating Content From Presentation

The notion of design being separate from the structure is something that many people don't get straight away - the idea semantics is something strange and unusual, and it's great that Glasshaus have devoted a chapter to explaining this in its own right.

Chapter 10 - Accessibility and Macromedia Flash

Very much a potted guide to Flash accessibility - if you are a Flash designer, this is probably fairly limited in scope (but the other chapters should be read too!), and a book devoted to Flash accessibility is probably required. However, for anyone who is new to Flash, perhaps someone (like myself) who has always coded in good ole HTML and fancies trying something different but without creating new accessibility barriers, this is a good primer.

Chapter 11 - Implementing Accessibility in Enterprise

What good is it striving to get your code accessible for someone else to say: "No, that doesn't look right, I want it done this way - I don't care if a few blind people can't use the site." It does happen. Mark Urban lays out some strategies for getting accessibility taken seriously within the corporate structure. Essential reading.

Chapter 12 - Emerging Technologies

A nod to the future, examining potentially helpful technologies where web accessibility is concerned, including Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), XML and XSL and even biometrics.

Chapter 13 - Web Accessibility Law in Depth

Finally we're back almost where we started with a look at the legal aspects. In this chapter you will learn when to apply Section 508 guidelines and when to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The author also discusses much of the US governmental policies and again looks at how specific cases should affect our approach.

Appendices included

This must be the first time I've truly read the Section 508 guidelines completely! Reading off screen is no fun, so it's great that the Section 508 guidelines are included in the appendices.

A quick checklist is also a useful addition - I can imagine the spine of this book being broken early on as the checklist gets photocopied and passed around (naughty copyright-breaking people, you!)

There's also the obligatory glossary section, but it's questionable how much use this is (as most topics are covered thoroughly in their respective sections).


The range of authors is quite staggering - eight in total! All of them are in their own way unquestionable experts in a given field, and the quality of the writing is evidence of this. The range of content makes this book an excellent guide for anyone wanting to understand about web accessibility in all its forms. My only reservation is that some people may be put off by the range of the content - sometimes there truly is a call for the 'idiot's guide' approach, and this is not it. For most people, though, this book will be an excellent resource to have to hand.
Review by: Ian Lloyd, January 2003

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Title Constructing Accessible Web Sites
Publisher Glasshaus
Written by     Jim Thatcher, Paul Bohman, Michael Burks, Shawn Lawton Henry, Bob Regan, Sarah Swierenga, Mark D. Urban, Cynthia D. Waddell
ISBN 1-904151-00-0