Accessibility has made its way into the mainstream of web development. Development environments offer accessibility analysis built in and web utilities are available to test the accessibility of published pages, but there’s no substitute for human testing.
Web accessibility is a term that went from obscurity in 1995 to a common industry term today. Governments in many countries now stipulate the accessibility of websites, and many web authoring and analysis tools have been created with accessibility in mind.
Section 508 is an accessibility standard set down by the U.S. government with which all government websites and those of companies and agencies receiving government funding must comply. Although most private companies and organizations do not need to maintain this standard of accessibility, doing so can only increase a site’s exposure to users all over the world. In addition, an accessible website is often a more usable website, and not just for people with disabilities. In addition, the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative released version 2.0 of its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in December, 2008 together with a customizable quick reference with techniques for adhering to the guidelines. That’s a huge document that can be overwhelming, so this article lists tools and techniques you can use to check a site’s accessibility and create accessible Web 2.0 applications in less time than you might think.
The web accessibility landscape is changing almost as fast as the web itself. As companies downsize, technology changes and sites become more and more interactive, formerly useful accessibility tools disappear, lose relevance or are abandoned by their developers. However, in every area where the push to make websites accessible has lost momentum, it has also gained new allies who have created new accessibility checkers, integrated accessibility into authoring tools and educated the development community about accessibility.
On the web of 2010, one solution does not fit all. There’s no magical tool that will catch accessibility problems with any website and tell you how to fix them. Instead, developers interested in ensuring the accessibility of their sites need to take advantage of existing tools, follow specific procedures and, last but not least, either use assistive technology to test the site themselves or ask someone to do it for them.
This is not to say that creating an accessible website is a cumbersome, time-consuming task. If you start the project with accessibility in mind, it need not take any more time than any other component of the site. Usability best practices are similar to those for accessibility, so combining the two takes less time than you might think while opening your site to the greatest number of users possible.
Basic Site Accessibility
Accessibility checkers have been a part of the web since the first days of graphical browsers. When Netscape started to catch on in 1995, a tool called Bobby was developed that tested websites for accessibility using a number of criteria. That tool was largely hailed as the standard in accessibility checkers for 10 years. With its demise, a number of tools have appeared to take its place. One is FAE, or the Functional Accessibility Evaluator. This is a flexible tool that will generate a report detailing any accessibility problems on a single page up to an entire site. To check the accessibility of more than one page, you must register for a free account.
WAVE is a simple tool that can check a page, an uploaded file or a code snippet for accessibility. It also offers a Dreamweaver extension that adds its functionality to the Dreamweaver editor. Dreamweaver and several other editors also contain tools to analyze a site’s accessibility and allow you to quickly fix any errors.
SortSite, from PowerMapper software, checks sites for accessibility, plus usability and SEO practices. The trial version is limited to checking 10 pages of a given site.
These three checkers are good for tracking down simple accessibility problems: inadequate ALT text for images, incomplete or bad tab order, mismatched x_onMouseOver events, inaccessible scripting practices and so on. They do less well at detecting confusing alt text, organizational problems and, most critical of all, Web 2.0 accessibility. For that, we need to look elsewhere.
In addition to standard accessibility concerns, web developers would do well to remember to keep contrast levels high and links clearly differentiable. This not only increases accessibility for those who are color blind, but it also makes sites much more usable by people with slight visual impairment, which accounts for tens of millions of people around the world. GrayBit, converts your entire site to grayscale, allowing you to determine whether people unable to discern colors will be able to effectively use your site. VisCheck can check your site to determine its accessibility by people with three kinds of color blindness: deuteranope, protanope and tritanope. Lastly, the Luminosity Color Contrast Ratio Analyzer checks the contrast of your site against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Creating Accessible Web 2.0 Applications
The accessibility field has struggled to keep up with the latest in Web 2.0 technologies. Even where standards exist, end-user assistive technologies that support these standards often take years to be released, by which time the standard has already expanded or changed. However, creating your Web 2.0 apps following these standards will ensure their accessibility when screen readers and other access technologies eventually catch up. Once you start with an accessible AJAX library, the rest is simple.
As AJAX became popular in 2005-2006, accessibility professionals began to become alarmed at the lack of accessibility in these emerging applications. Without a solid standard, web developers and library authors would do their own thing, and that would spell disaster for Web 2.0 accessibility. This led a number of individuals in the field to come together and create the Accessible Rich Internet Applications, or ARIA, standard. It lays out specific guidelines to provide necessary information about controls in AJAX applications to assistive technologies such as screen readers. This also includes a standard called Live Regions that allows screen readers to update users when the content on a page changes.
These new toolkits allow you to create high performance, customized applications that look good and maintain accessibility at the same time, a win-win for webmasters. Although support for ARIA among assistive technologies is not complete, it is expected to be available in the next versions of the major screen-reading software.
The Human Touch
Although there are a number of testers, checkers, analyzers and the like, nothing can help you pinpoint accessibility problems like manual testing done by a user. It can actually be fun to put yourself in the place of a blind user and attempt to use your website. Limited-time demos are available for the most popular screen-readers: Window-Eyes and Jaws. Completely free option is a screen-reader that is gaining in popularity called NVDA.
Launch the screen reader, bring up the website and close your eyes. Use the keyboard to navigate your way through the site and attempt to perform each function. Use tab to go from link to link and the arrow keys to move through the elements on the site. Can you do it? Is it straight-forward? Are there some links that are confusing or that don’t adequately describe their function? If you need to fill out a form, does the screen reader read the label of each field so you know what information is being asked for? If your site makes heavy use of Web 2.0, don’t worry if you have trouble using it with a screen reader. Just make sure it is constructed using accessible widgets found in the toolkits and libraries noted above.
If you don’t have time to do such extensive testing on your own, there are several specialized firms that will do this testing for you. Some web design and optimizing companies now also include accessibility analysis among their services.
If you can’t afford the expense involved in using third-party testers, the automated checkers will do an adequate job of at least ensuring that users who cannot use a mouse and those who can’t see the screen will be able to navigate your site effectively. Remember to make text easily resizable so that it can be read by the increasing population of slightly visually impaired individuals around the world.
In the end, making a website accessible will not only make its functionality available to those with a range of disabilities, but those without disabilities will benefit as well, through increased usability and browser compatibility. Whether you’re developing a large, corporate site that must comply with Section 508 or a small e-commerce site with a very limited budget, you’ll find a number of accessibility tools and techniques that will make this previously painful process a smooth one.
About the author: Roko Nastic is writer and editor at WebmasterFormat.com, website developed to help webmasters build and maintain successful websites. Visitors to WebmasterFormat can enjoy a lot of useful advices, latest news and read web hosting reviews.