We want to make the Web a friendly place, and that means including everyone. Many sites, however, aren’t fully compatible with special browsers and technologies that give those with special needs full access to the Internet.
Luckily, Web developers are learning to build “accessible” websites which are able to work in conjunction with assisstive technologies such as screenreaders and talking browsers.
There are many reasons to make your site accessible, including reaching a wider audience, showing a philosophy of inclusiveness, and even the side-effect of having better search visibility.
We recently had a chance to ask Web accessibility expert Marc Hamann some questions about what companies should know about Web accessibility. Marc is the accessibility consulting manager at CNIB, an organization that provides support to Canadians who are blind or partially sighted. His job involves evaluating websites for accessibility, and training people to build and maintain accessible webpages.
In this Q&A, we talk about how accessibility is becoming mandatory, where it currently fits into an organization’s priorities, some simple ways to test accessibility, and more.
Online Friendly: It’s becoming mandatory for government sites to meet accessibility requirements. Will there be a similar requirement either legally or otherwise for private firms to do the same?
Marc Hamann: Yes, at least in Ontario. Starting Jan 1, 2014, all organizations, public or private, with 50 employees or more will need to have a website that meets the A level of compliance for W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). Some private firms, such as banks, that are under federal regulation may need to meet higher standards sooner.
OF: What are the current attitudes towards Web accessibility? Is it treated as an afterthought?
MH: With the new awareness of regulations, things are changing a bit, but there is a strong tendency for organizations to only consider accessibility at the end of a project. I routinely get requests to check projects just before they launch, with the expectation that there will only be small fixes required. This is rarely the case. Unless a project was developed from design onward with accessibility in mind, there are often major problems that need to be remedied, especially in more elaborate sites. For this reason, we recommend that people incorporate accessibility as a design criterion from the start, and test for it throughout the project.
OF: What resources are available for those wanting to learn how to create an accessible website?
MH: There are a number of smaller resources on the Web that can help, and the WCAG Standard is available on the Web as well, though it probably isn’t for the faint of heart.
CNIB offers a one-day course in Web accessibility that digests the Standard and gives participants the basic principles and practices they need to produce accessible websites.
OF: Say I run a small business and have gotten a developer to create an accessible WordPress site. What can I do to make sure that that the pages and blog posts I create are accessible?
MH: Obviously, being familiar with the principles and practices of accessible web sites helps. We encourage people to test websites with a screen-reader ( a freely available one for Windows can be found at http://www.nvda-project.org/, and Macs come with VoiceOver). We also recommend testing a web page using only a keyboard. This is an important requirement for Web accessibility, as there are many disabilities that can prevent the effective use of a mouse, including vision loss and restricted mobility .
OF: Given the relatively large-scale adoption of large-print books, audio books, closed captioning and described video, do you see accessible websites taking off in a similar fashion?
MH: Unlike some of those alternative media, we don’t recommend that people produce separate versions of their website for accessibility. Whenever possible, we recommend a universal design approach: make a website that everyone can use, with or without disabilities. With the increase in regulation and awareness, I do think that soon accessibility will be as much a requirement for all Web projects, just as security and scalability already are.