Musings: Accessibility and websites, who cares?

Since way back in 1994 when I thought the true purpose of the Internet was the dissemination of information, I have been proud to say that I develop content driven websites. E-commerce has always been problematic in that it is often a challenge to create sites that are accessible within the constraints of the products that are available to build an e-commerce site. Because of this, people with disabilities often hit roadblocks when attempting to purchase online.

A content driven website can always be built to be accessible. It is a choice. Since it is so easy to do, I don't understand why all websites aren't being built to be accessible.

Who cares about accessibility?

I know I do. If a site is built to be accessible, it usually means that the site will be easy to see and read, the fonts will be scaleable, the images will be described and the color scheme will be thoughtful and practicable.

When a site is built to be accessible, the images on the site contain a description within the html markup of the site that is visible when the visitor runs a mouse over the image. The Section 508 guidelines, the United States federal government guidelines for accessibility, state that an alt, or text, description must be included with an image or graphic to accommodate people who are blind.

Even though I am not blind, I find the alt description useful especially when I am not familiar with a symbol or I do not recognize the subject of a photograph. It's the curb cut phenomenon. Read Accessibility, it really is about curb cuts.

Why do we need dancing bears?

Back in the beginning when I was leading some of the first Internet training classes here in Philadelphia we used the dancing bear graphic as a symbol for gratuitous graphics. So many non-designers who were making most of the first websites would use several different font sets on a page just because they could. The same with graphics. Multiple font sets and graphics on a page is generally considered poor design, regardless of the context of the site.

Accessible websites are boring.

Accessible websites are only boring if you want them to be. For an example of innovative design, beautiful and accessible websites, visit the css Zen Garden.

As you wander the zen garden you will visit bold staggering designs, gentle designs, cool and calming designs along with cutting edge and retro looks. Every one of these designs is Section 508 accessible. How, you may ask? Separation of style and structure.

It takes a village to successfully design an accessible website. Not exactly, but it does take at least two different skill sets - a good designer who is supported by a site architect who understands html and css. Some of today's designers are actually learning to design using the power of html and bridging the gap between the two disciplines.

What's in it for me?

Imagine a website built using HTML5 and CSS, or, in plain English, the separation of the design from the structure of the site. It's like building a house and then painting the walls, instead of trying to build a house around a painted wall.

Using true separation of design through a style sheet (CSS) allows sweeping change in an instant. For instance, by making one minor edit to an existing style sheet you can change the background color of all pages on the site. Not so easy when the background color is incorpated in the HTML. Without good solid CSS, this sort of simple change would mean visiting and editing every page on the website.

By planning ahead and separating design from structure, you can save a great deal of time and money on upkeep of a site, while also having the luxury of making site-wide changes, such as the change of the background color on all pages, in minutes instead of hours.

What's in it for you is savings and good will. You can save money in the long run and you have the good will of all your visitors. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Tell me if you care.

If you care about accessibility as it relates to website development, I would enjoy hearing from you. Send me an email, email Nancy Massey, and tell me your story.

-Nancy Massey

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