As a blind computer user the issue of web accessibility is close to my heart. Prior to addressing the matter in hand it may be helpful if I sketch out how people who are unable to read print access the web.
I lost the majority of my vision at about 18-months-old. I can see outlines of objects but lack sufficient vision to read my computer’s screen. How then do I navigate the internet?
Blind computer users utilise screen reading software which converts the text on screen into speech and/or Braille allowing the visually impaired person to navigate the web. In my case I use Jaws (http://www.freedomscientific.com/Products/Blindness/JAWS) on both my work and home computers.
So, if you use Jaws and it allows you to access the internet what is the problem? Surely everything in the garden is rosey?
No, unfortunately not.
So what problems do you encounter?
- Links rendered as photographs or other images with no text to identify them. Jaws and other screen reading software can only interpret text. On encountering an image it sees only a blank page or, on occasions will announce “image” without stating the nature of the photograph. When encountering a series of links, rendered as images the only way in which a screen user can ascertain their meaning is by clicking on each one. Imagine a webpage consisting of several hundred links rendered as images. In most cases the blind computer user will give up in frustration and move on to a more accessible site meaning that the web site owner has lost a potential reader and (if the site sells products) possibly a sale also.
So should I not put photographs on my site?
We live in a predominantly sighted world and it would be wholly unreasonable for anyone to expect web site owners not to use photographs and/or other images. They can make a sight more interesting and encourage visitors to participate by, for example leaving comments. Labelling an image with text can aid the screen reader user. For example a link to an article on dogs, rendered as a photograph of our four legged friend can be labelled as “dog” with the text stating that an image of a dog is included.
- CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA are those squiggly images, sometimes containing text which a computer user must interpret prior to being able to perform certain functions, for example submiting a contact form. They have the laudable objective of preventing spam however, in practice most CAPTCHA make it difficult (sometimes impossible) for blind computer users to contact the web master or comment on posts. This is because, as mentioned above, screen reading software like Jaws can not interpret images thereby rendering many CAPTCHA inaccessible. Some sites, for example Blogger do have an audio version of the CAPTCHA on which blind people can click. However this is, in my experience usually unintelligible, meaning that the visually impaired person gives up in frustration and fails to comment (I know I have been in that position many times)!
One of the reasons I like WordPress is due to it’s lack of CAPTCHA. WordPress uses Akismet (http://akismet.com/) which, in my experience captures well over 90 percent of spam without utilising CAPTCHA. As a blogger I do recognise the menace of spam. Spammers should be boiled in oil while hosts of bloggers dance around the flames. (that is, incidentally a joke before anyone takes me seriously)! However spam can be prevented very effectively without resorting to CAPTCHA and (accidentally) stopping blind people from participating on your site.
Many site owners take accessibility seriously and in the overwhelming majority of cases where accessibility issues exist this is due to a lack of knowledge (not out of lack of consideration for the needs of blind computer users).
Finally I would like to thank the many bloggers and others out there who take accessibility on board.