Accessibility and Access Keys

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Reach More People

An accessible site will reach a larger audience than an inaccessible site. But how much larger? The problem with ‘designing for the average user’ is that many users are decidedly non-average. Many sites exclude such users, usually by accident. Those users make up around a fifth of your potential audience. (Source: W3C statistics)

An accessible site has well structured code that can be interpreted by a variety of browsers, search engines and access-tools. It provides non-visual equivalents to visual elements, adds underlying navigation features (such as access-keys, skip links and relational navigation), and uses clear language. These things are all additive — they do not take away any existing functions of your site — and can be implemented without affecting the visual design.

Accessible web sites ensure that users with visual, mobility, language and other impairments, major or minor, are not excluded from the information or services that a site provides. But accessible web sites are more accessible and usable for everyone, not just for people with disabilities. Accessible sites welcome users who do not or cannot use javascript or cookies; users with slow bandwidth connections; or who are using alternative access methods (PDAs and mobile phones, text-browsers and screen-readers). Search engines love accessible sites, as of course do users with disabilities.

Javascript and Cookies

Many corporate firewalls block scripts and cookies at various levels of security. Sites that rely on Javascript or cookies can be rendered unusable to these users. Counter data indicates that between 6% and 13% of users do not use javascript (source: the global statistics, May 03 - May 04), and many more restrict or block cookies.

PDA and Smartphone Users

PDA users have smaller screens than desktop users, and often switch off images to conserve bandwidth. Often javascript implementation is limited, and images are resized to fit on the screen, often pixellating in the process. 2.8 million PDAs were sold in Western Europe in 2002, of which over a million could connect wirelessly to the web. Forecasts for 2003 are 3.9 million and over 2 million respectively. (Source: eTForecasts, 2003).

Users who block Pop-ups

In mid 2004, an estimated 1 in 5 users blocked pop-ups (Source: Internet Marketing Center); AOL, Norton Personal Firewall and the Google toolbar have in-built popup-blocking capability. Even more recently, Microsoft's recent XP update ('service pack 2') brings pop-up blocking to the masses. If you are relying on pop-ups for any key functionality, such as your sign-in procedure, you will be losing many of your users. Accessible sites avoid calling pop-ups or new windows wherever possible, and where it is unavoidable, ensures that the user is informed that a link will open a new window.

Users with Slower Connections

Not everyone has access to broadband, and many people still haven't made the move to a 56k modem. New technologies such as Smartphones and PDAs with wireless web access also have much slower connection rates. An accessible site makes sure that users with slow connections can turn off images and still have an elegant, well designed, informative and navigable website. UK Narrowband connections (i.e. 56k or slower) still outweigh broadband connections by 2:1 (Source: Neilsen//Netratings, Jan 2003). 15% of UK users are connecting at slower than 56k (Source: Neilsen//Netratings, Jan 2003)

Google and other Search Engines

Thanks to its excellent ranking system, Google has grown to be the world's largest and most popular search engine, reporting what it finds to over 200 million users every day. Accessible pages make ranking highly in Google a more realistic prospect. Google loves pages that are also easy work for a blind user: pages that are well structured when read linearly; that use heading tags appropriately; that do not rely on JavaScript to work; and that provide good text equivalents for images. In effect, making your site accessible means that Google can get to know what language your page is written in, what your page is about and which of the text is most important.

Users with Disabilities

The web changes the nature of disability. Deaf users are at little disadvantage in cyberspace, whereas colour blindness or dyslexia can be significant problems. Most accessibility issues are to do with allowing for users who have visual, language or mobility impairments. Mobility impairments include everything from rheumatism to tendonitis, tennis elbow to cerebral palsy. Language impairments can stem from dyslexia, as well as a host of social reasons — 15% of the population have reading difficulties. Visual impairments include various kinds of blindness, as well as colour blindness, and simply weak sight. If you're over forty, you've probably been frustrated already by a standard font size that's too small to read.

  • 3.8 million people in the UK have arm/hand problems (Source: Department for work and pensions)
  • 2 million people in the UK are registered or registerable as blind or visually impaired. (Source: RNIB surveys)
  • 85% of people aged 50 and over have visual problems, especially for close reading. (Source: Association Nationale pour l'Amélioration de la Vue)
  • 10% of people have some measurable degree of dyslexia (Source: The Dyslexia Handbook 1995, British Dyslexia Association)
  • Web sites are legally obliged not to exclude people on the basis of disability (Source: Disability Discrimination Act 1995)

Users with disabilities are a substantial, poorly served market in the UK, who gain particular benefits from online transactions. A well designed, accessible site gives you access to this eager audience.

Next Article: Comply with the law.

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