Web accessibility is a term used to describe whether a website can be used, as intended, by everyone. More people than ever are using the Internet across a range of devices so it is important to try to understand the different aspects of web accessibility.

Universal web accessibility is essential to making sure that everybody that wants to view and benefit from your webpage can, be it those with disabilities, injuries, poor eyesight or unsupported web browsers; Mike Cherim, founder of Accessites.org said:

Whilst accessibility is an important part of reaching that goal, accessibility is by far the most important aspect of universality.

Many companies now follow specific web accessibility procedures which is supplied to designers and developers who use this policy document to shape the accessibility of the website. If a company or organisations does not have an in-house policy, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a comprehensive guide for companies of all sizes to follow when it comes to approaching web accessibility. This version of the document details four comprehensive sections that include: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust accessibility.

Perceivable

In this instance, all users must be able to perceive the information on the website. For the most part, websites are designed around sight; colour choice, content, images and typeface are just a few of the aspects considered by a designer. But when the end user cannot see the site the way it was intended, what happens? In most up to date web browsers a visually impaired user can increase and decrease the font size quite easily. In addition the browser settings can be updated to reflect any problems with colour blindness, for example, changing the contrast of the text on the background.

At the design stage contrasting colour combinations will be taken into consideration to help the text stand out and become easier to read. A useful tool for checking the contrast of colours against the background is the web accessibility in mind site.

In addition as internet uses are getting older, they may notice changes in their sight, near and far vision changes with age and reading something on a screen can become a much bigger challenge. Internet browser have been supporting text zooming in and out for some time which is even better for those sites that have been built responsively!

Operable

Accessibility is not just about sight, to use most websites you will need to navigate down the pages and menu systems with the help of a mouse. But some users are unable to do this due to perhaps a physical disability, a medical condition such as arthritis or even a broken arm. This is when your keyboard becomes extremely useful, travelling from one heading or link down the page, guiding the user to the next focus of the content. If the content on the page has not been structured properly then the user will frustratingly jump from top to bottom and eventually leave the sight dissatisfied. At the point of building the site, the content should have ‘tags’ added so that a keyboard device can read this information for those users that navigate in this way.

Furthermore this point in the WCAG also covers navigating through the page and having the option for adjusting any of the presets of the website, for example if a video or audio file automatically starts to play, the user can turn off this feature with no restrictions.

Internet speed should also be considered at this point as if one user is using fibre optic and another a slow dial up connection, how do they both view the same content and data heavy website? All the necessary information should be viewed or received no matter what speed internet a user has. For example, a user may turn off the option to load images, animations and videos to avoid taking up bandwidth. The page will load faster and the user can view the information much quicker.

Understandable

We perhaps take for granted that we already know how the website works in the way we’d imagined. Click a button to take you to a new page, scroll down for more information, the process has become automatic, almost muscle memory. So when it isn’t, what then?

The WCAG guidelines state that if the website does not operate in a predictable way, then clear instructions must be available on the page for users to learn the ‘unpredictable’ navigation. It is also under this umbrella that the language of a website must also be clearly defined, this is not only for users who read the content, but for users that implement a reading device. These devices can process information, words and punctuation much quicker when the language tag has been set.

Robust

This chapter expresses the importance of quality control and best practice of the structure and code of the website. If code is incomplete or if inappropriate charters are used the website will fail on some level.

For blind users a screen reader can be used which will interpret elements of the page and describe them. In this instance it is important at the time of building the website to include not only ‘alt tags’ for images, and ‘title tags’ for links so that these can be accurately picked up on by the reader, but also that lines of code are finished so the reader can translate this. This method of tagging page elements ensures that no information is missed and that a blind user can benefit from visiting the website in the same as a non-blind user. If no tags have been input the page simply cannot be read.

It is clear then that website accessibility does not just affect those with differing abilities; those users with slow internet speed, injuries and even users whose needs are changing with age should all be considered when it comes to designing a website. Website accessibility issues are being thought about early on in the stage, which is a positive step for all Internet users. With a wider demographic of users online, the job of a designer and developer is evolving to include a larger, more varied community.

If you would like to know more about this we found these resources helpful:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/best_practice/

http://www.apple.com/uk/accessibility/

http://accessites.org/site/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/

http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/