VSJ – March 2004 – Work in Progress

As you’ll have noticed in last month’s VSJ, one of the presentations at the upcoming Symposium is by Julie Howell of the RNIB. Council member John Ellis, FIAP sets the scene for her contribution here.
Recently I had to evaluate some Web sites for their accessibility to people with visual impairments. Why bother, you may ask, if they can’t see a screen? Well, first, someone can be registered blind but still have significant residual sight. And second, a little known (at least, less well known than it ought to be) Act of Parliament, the Disability Discrimination Act exists that imposes on us, the developers and designers of Web sites, a duty to provide access to those with any impairment. The Act includes any service, whether for the provision of information or to provide a purchase route.
The sad fact is that most Web sites (some of my own included) do not support any form of access for those with visual impairments, making those sites inaccessible to nearly 2 million potential customers. We are talking some big high street names here, folks! While organisations like the W3C and the RNIB try to promote best practice it seems to be failing to get down to the grass roots – US! From small independent developers and designers through to big corporate giants, many of us are missing the point. We need to make access easy.
So what are the issues? We need to break this down to the groups involved (I hope this is a broad enough for those with disabilities). We have the blind, visually impaired and those with motor problems. Each group has different requirements and even within those groups there are significant variations. Generally, those with motor or visual impairment problems will either have special keyboards or enhanced screen viewers to allow them to interact with their computers. While I know that isn’t 100% true, for the purposes of this article I will ignore this group. I plan a future article on the issues here.
For those who are blind there are some simple things we can do to aid the process. First, we need to understand the problem. Most of these users do not run Internet Explorer or Netscape. They have special browsers that convert pages into speech or Braille, processing only the text elements. These browsers read the pages left to right and top to bottom, including tables etc. They will interpret HTML formatting codes to inform the user of the page content.
There are, as always, limitations. Such browsers tend not to interpret frames. So we could create a site with no frames or two sites, the second being a frameless mirror, as it were. If we do have frames, we need to provide titles in the HTML so that suitably enabled browsers can tell the user what the frame is for, ‘Menu Frame’ or ‘Main Details Frame’, for example. As I mentioned, the browsers tend to read tables left to right, so using them to format a page can be disastrous in that they may read the page totally out of context. So it’s best to restrict table use to lists of figures and so on. You can also give the columns and rows titles that can be understood and interpreted.
The biggest issue is images. We all use graphics on our sites for impact. But that impact is lost on the blind user. It is, however, useful to know what the designer was trying to achieve, so adding an ALT tag to the image with a description, such as ‘Picture of the Queen’, gives the interpreter something to work with. Finally, using style sheets to describe your fonts and colours means that the browser doesn’t then interpret them, which makes the pages less confusing to the user. This confers some additional benefits. For example, partially sighted users can override your style sheet to allow them to define their own preferences. From a technical point of view, of course, the style sheet, if held a separate file is only downloaded once, reduces formatting in the Web page. This then reduces future page download times and improves performance, not to mention reducing the bandwidth required.
This just scratches the surface of the things we can do to help those who cannot see our work to be in a position, not just to understand our site, but possibly to visualise what we were trying to achieve. As Web sites move into their 3rd and 4th generations it is time for us to make them accessible not just because it is required by law, or because it can open up more sales opportunities but because it addresses the needs of a large number of people. I welcome any comments on the issue and will try to pick out individual items and expand on them in future articles.
You can contact John at john.ellis@wellis-technology.co.uk.
[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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