Up early this a.m. to join the campus web accessibility group for a tour through a few sites I manage — via speaking screen reader technology for the blind. Like most web managers, nailing accessibility has been one of those things on my to-do list for years, but which has a bad tendency to get de-prioritized in the midst of other needs. We tested both the existing and forthcoming journalism sites, as well as chinadigitaltimes.net. Tested with a reader called Jaws for both IE and FireFox, and then using the screen reader built into Tiger.
Overall, I was impressed at how well our sites did, in part because I’ve paid at least some attention to web standards, Alt-tagging, and form labeling over time, but we’ve definitely got work to do. Probably the easiest-to-implement change will be to place Skip Tags around main navigation elements so people don’t have to hear the main nav read to them on every page view.
We all know by now that tables should only be used for tabular data, not for page layout. But today I got a first-hand demonstration of what a difference CSS rather than table-based layout makes for blind users. And when you do use tables, be sure to use the caption= attribute to label its purpose.
Heading levels are so often chosen arbitrarily, based on font size (layout) reasons, rather than on hierarchical logic. We all know better, but we’re also all guilty of this. But few developers know that when heading levels are implemented logically, blind users can skip between the main points/sections on a page by jumping from, e.g., one H2 to the next, skipping content in between major points.
One thing I didn’t know was that developers should not be religious about attaching Alt= tags to images. Spacer gifs or decorative images that serve no purpose from the perspective of gleaning useful content merely slow blind users down. Even though it will cause pages to fail XHTML validation processes, blind readers appreciate leaving Alt tags empty (as opposed to missing) with non-essential graphics (when the Alt attribute is blank, the screen reader skips the image completely). Use alt=”” for non-essential graphics.
Some of these things I’ll be able to implement easily on the new site; others may not make it until a few months after. But just knowing what to be mindful of, and having now witnessed the experience of surfing blind for myself, is going to make a difference in the way I work.