For people with disabilities surfing the web can be difficult, if not impossible. Common tasks that most people take for granted such as reading, typing or online purchasing can become complex, time consuming endeavours for people who are less capable. Disabilities may include blindness, deafness or hard of hearing. With ever more elaborate media types being introduced to the Internet, the harder it becomes for disabled users to interact on the web.
Making websites usable involves taking into consideration the disabilities of the users. Designing for people with disabilities makes good business sense. As well as catering for a wider range of people, disabled users are likely to become loyal to sites who meet their special needs. Many websites are required to comply with legislation on accessibility and look to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for guidance and international standards.
The W3C supplies guidelines for accessibility through the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The W3C encourages the use of correctly coded HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) to construct web pages. HTML was designed as a way to create structured documents through the use of semantics, thereby conveying meaning rather than presentation. Strictly coded HTML can then be interpreted by different types of browsers and presented in a way that suits the user, whilst still conveying the same meaning.
Despite these guidelines being in place for accessibility, there are still limitations on how graphical elements (such as images, tables, maps, graphs and multimedia) are displayed for users with visual impairments. The W3C guidelines declares that images and other graphical elements must contain ‘alt’ tags in the HTML code, which give a brief description of the element for cases where the image cannot be displayed (for instance, text only browsers or assistive technology). Graphs are especially complicated, as they condense a great deal of data into one image and a short textual description cannot always convey all the information. Another attempt to describe visual elements in HTML is the ‘longdesc’ attribute, one that provides a link to a longer description of the image, although the developers portal W3schools describes this this attribute as being, “so poorly supported that it should not be used”. None the less, it is important to design with the needs of disabled users in mind. Not only is this better from a moral perspective, but it can increase the number of people able to use the site.