Wednesday 9 September 2009

Accessibility shown up with NVDA

I downloaded the latest version of NVDA, a free and open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system, and ran my homepage through it. This is something I've done in the past for other web sites I've had a hand in building, and it brought back to me how hard accessibility is.

Sure I've got skip links on my pages and I'd turned off all styling to 'read' my homepage. But if you close your eyes and run a web page through a screen reader, you quickly find that it's very different from 'reading' an un-styled page. Every time a page is read, all the skip links are read out one after another. The user can use keys to follow links and jump around the page, but if the user has a motor impairment and clicking links or pressing keys is difficult, the accessible usability of the skip links is significantly reduced.

Listening to the links being read out means 'remembering' the links readout. There is automatically an increased cognitive load on the user's memory, and if a user's cognitive ability is slightly impaired then your 'accessible' website is not what you thought it once was. A web site is there for a reason; to allow a user to buy something, find some information, etc. It's not 'to allow a user to buy something, find some information, etc. so long as that user is not disabled'.

So taking the position that a website should be usuable by everyone, what can be done to recover the accessibility of our 'accessible' website?

  1. Don't crowd all the skip links at the top. Place the skip link immediately before the item to skip. Doing this has the added benefit that the user 'knows without listening' they are not skipping over other items of the site they might want to go to.

  2. Place a 'Jump to' link (maybe links) at the end of a item to other important items such as navigation, page top, or page index.

  3. Move the placement of items in the html source. Should the navigation bar always be read before the content of the page the user just told you they wanted to read? What about the header/ banner of the site? These placements are important when visually accessing the site and can still be acheived with a little css.

Why bother? Disabled users have the collective spending power of tens of billions of dollars in the US alone. If a user is visiting your site it is because they want access to what you are offering. Why put up a sign that says 'if you can't reach the counter we don't want your custom'?

I've got some work to do on my own site. I used a modified version of the 960  Grid System that works really well and then added some accessibility features. The site (and yours) would be far more accessible if the placement of un-styled items in the HTML source is considered first and then doing some work in CSS to move those items around into visually pleasing positions.

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