Accessibility: Beyond the Screen-Reader

I’d like to begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m not an accessibility expert. In fact, web accessibility scares me; it’s that daunting consideration when kicking off a web project that can send shivers down the spines of the hardiest developers. Luckily, us web folk love a challenge!

The purpose of this post is to talk about the common misunderstanding that accessibility means catering for blind people almost exclusively. I’ve found myself frustrated by “accessibility tunnel-vision” on a number of occasions recently which has inspired me to explain my understanding of web accessibility. Who exactly are we trying to cater for? We’ll start with the obvious:

Blind Or Partially Sighted Users

This is the user that we tend to jump to when accessibility is mentioned. These users may rely completely on assistive technology, such as a screen-reader, to access the web. Partially sighted or vision-impaired users may not rely on a screen-reader, but will find it difficult to read content if the type is too small or cannot be zoomed.

There are a wealth of resources available to help make our websites work well for this group. In order to achieve a basic level of support, it helps to ensure that your website is usable in a text-based browser such as Lynx – writing sensible, semantic markup is a first step. I also can’t emphasise what an eye-opener it is to try and use a screen-reader yourself.

Vision impaired users can be catered for by keeping your type sizes sensible (personal preference: >=16px), and ensuring that your content is zoomable. You’ll make this a lot easier by using a scalable font measurement in your CSS such as em or rem.

Colour-Blind Users

Colour-blind users may find it hard to distinguish between elements on a page if they are similar in colour. This can become a problem when the contrast between two elements is important; for example, between your website text and background. People with even mild colour-blindness may find it difficult to read content.

When it comes to catering for colour-blind users, subtlety becomes your enemy; there are some great contrast checking tools online which can help you immensely.

Users With Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can encompass anything from minor impairments of motor-skills to paralysis. Motor impairments are common in elderly web users who may rely on a keyboard alone to browse the web – using a mouse requires small, precise hand movements.

Ensuring that your website is keyboard-accessible is important, it’s also quite easy to test: unplug your mouse! There are quite a few resources around the web on this topic, and fixing up your website for keyboard users is actually relatively easy.

Users With Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities get little air-time in my opinion, yet conditions such as dyslexia are extremely common. The diversity of this group is huge, and cognitive disabilities can have an adverse effect on memory; problem solving; attention; and reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension to name a few:

Some users may have difficulties with their long, mid or short-term memories. This can be an issue when moving through a stepped sign-up or purchasing process for example. Clear sign-posting and guidance is essential for these users.
Problem solving
For users who have trouble problem-solving, things like form errors or unclear instructions are a nightmare. Instructions should be clear and large changes to the page should be explained to the user.
Users with conditions such as ADHD often struggle to maintain concentration when completing a task. Avoiding background noise on a page and using visual cues to highlight important content helps these users.
Reading, linguistic and verbal comprehension
This broad category ranges from problems understanding long or complex words and sentence structure, to difficulty processing non-literal text such as sarcasm, metaphor or slang. Clear document structure, supplemental media and uncomplicated writing can help these users a lot.

For more information, I can’t recommend this article on cognitive disabilities enough. It goes into far more depth than I could on the subject!

To Conclude

So I hope I haven’t made accessibility an even scarier word for you! Granted there’s a lot to consider, and accessibility can seem like a bit of a minefield, but building accessible websites can be an extremely rewarding endeavour.

By thinking about these users while you build, not only will you help people with disabilities, but many of the relatively small improvements listed in this post will make your site more usable for everyone.

Thanks for reading,

For further reading on this subject, see: