Accessible Can Still Mean Awesome

An accessibility logo.Although social media is now the hot new thing, our previous blog posts have well illustrated its limitations. Somehow or another your social network campaigns ultimately will be bringing them back home to your website, and everyone tells you it’s time to dump the animated GIFs and the Netscape Navigator buttons and get it out of the ’90s. That means it’s time to make it sexy, right? Right!

But think a little first about your program or campaign and the population it serves: does your new site serve them too? If your site looks beautiful but can only be navigated by the latest and greatest browser on the newest computers, or only by people with perfect functional capacity, what does that do for the people who intend to reach out to? In other words, is your site accessible?

Accessibility is formally thought of as serving disabled and special populations. That’s true and it’s important, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but they aren’t the only ones who can benefit from it. For example, those of us serving indigent, underserved and financially limited clients might think about how your site can be viewed with older browsers or on older computers, or on mobile devices, which may be their only computing devices. Does your site take too long to render? Does your site not even appear at all? Are you using a lot of JavaScript or interactive programming their computer is too old or feeble to handle? Do you need to?

Try an experiment. Find an old computer from a few years ago or an old copy of a browser (do this behind a firewall, since older systems and browsers may have bugs that can compromise your computer’s security). How does your site appear in it? What about a smartphone from two years ago? If you turn JavaScript off, can you still use it? The gaps you see may be exactly how it looks to your clients as well. If they’re sizeable, you may need to think about characterizing your population better to determine what they have and how far back you still want to support.

Naturally accessibility does also, of course, mean ensuring your site is accessible to disabled individuals too, and here’s a handy checklist of other specific ways you can improve the accessibility of your website to special populations. If you’re not the one building your own site, make sure your consultants or contractors know who is likely to visit so they can take appropriate steps.

  • Low vision: If your visitors are visually impaired, see how your website looks magnified. Many browsers will let you enlarge the font size with the scroll wheel: hold down the Control key (or the Command key on a Mac) and roll the wheel. If a reasonable enlargement makes your site design fall apart, you might want to retool your layout to be more flexible instead of relying on an item’s exact position on the screen. Consider also adding better visual cues for visitors with colour blindness, such as making sure links are always underlined and self-explanatory and that the colour is not the sole component communicating meaning. There are a number of free tools to test your site’s colour usage.
    • What about no vision (legally or completely blind)? These visitors will likely rely on screen readers or Braille terminals, which although they have advanced technologically as well, still ultimately turn an on-screen display with lots of elements into a sequential stream of words. Although the best way is to try some screen readers yourself, one simple way is to see how sensible your page looks like in a text-only browser like Lynx. Avoid components like Flash applets, which few screen readers and terminals can meaningfully handle, and always ensure images have a text description.
  • Hearing impaired or Deaf: Does your site require audio, such as background music or video? Consider subtitling your video or offering a transcript of audio and video you offer. For certain populations, if you’re able, having an American Sign Language translation of your film can be highly beneficial.
  • Avoid flashing images or “lights” for visitors more likely to suffer epileptic seizure.

If your grant or funding agency demands an actual audit for accessibility, or statute requires it (such as Section 508), the World Wide Web Consortium has technical information on A, AA and AAA accessibility ratings and how to qualify.

With a little care, you can get the outstanding modern-looking site your program needs to be successful and support your social and mobile campaigns, and still ensure that it’s serving and reaching the people you want it to. At its fundamentals accessibility is about inclusiveness and equity, and ultimately, those are the best ways to ensure everyone you serve has the same ability to benefit and become healthier.


One thought on “Accessible Can Still Mean Awesome

  1. Cameron, I see we had some similar thoughts this past week. I was so excited to see that you wrote about accessibility, as it’s something that often gets addressed last or left behind. You’ve provided some great links for resources for everyone to use- thank you!
    I especially appreciated that you covered accessibility from two angles: the formal one (as you’ve termed it) and also the technical one. This is actually a specific problem for me- our PCs in the legislature still use IE8, and almost nothing really works on it anymore. It does mean, however, that I have a lot of experience trying to code for multiple browsers and versions. It can be extremely frustrating, and I hope that all of the amazing tools we covered this week make it much easier. Testing for accessibility can take a lot of time, but is really critical if you are hoping to engage your entire audience and not exclude anyone. This will be particularly important if your audience might be more likely to need accessible sites, such as older adults or communities with low computer saturation but high mobile use. It will also be really important for anyone using web forms to collect information. Great, very informative and helpful post!

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