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Accessibility More Than The Right Thing To Do

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Marlene Bruce

Member info

User since: 14 Dec 1998

Articles written: 10

All web sites associated with the federal government (and an increasing number

of states) will need to comply with the Americans With Disabilities

by early next year. This will affect web publications, software

development, and hardware and software procurement standards.


I recently attended a

web accessibility seminar, and it confirmed some issues that have been discussed

in recent months throughout the web development commmunity: new U.S. Federal

and State laws affecting web sites. While you may not be running a site supported

by federal or state funding, it might be beneficial to make accessibility

adjustments to your site just the same.

According to the seminar, federal web sites (and their contractors) must adhere

to the federal law by February 2000. State laws, in some cases, are already supposed

to be in effect, but this varies. For example, in the case of Maryland the law was

supposed to go into effect as of October 1998, but the information is only now

(almost a year later) being widely disseminated.


Affected web site managers and developers must take into account the steps below

to rectify possible problems on their web sites. For most of you (I hope),

these steps mean minor tweaks to your sites; for others it may mean significant

site overhaul or redesign.

The features listed below are not optional. If you have been

previously unaware of accessibility issues and failed to take these principles

into account, you will now have to make an additional effort to adopt the

good design practices described below. According to the information presented

at the seminar, if you have a public web site associated with Federal or

State government (including state-funded colleges and universities), you are

required to adhere to these guidelines. This includes faculty pages meant

to disseminate information for students and resources for the public, but does

not include "personal" web pages (though these guidelines encourage good design practices in general).

Please begin checking and modifying your site soon, as the six months will pass by quickly.


General Techniques






Judicious use of colors, fonts, and graphics.

Restraint is the key word. A web page can, in many ways, be likened

to a page in a book. As a general rule:

  1. Avoid the use of more than two or three colors (plus white) and three font sizes.

  2. Use bold and italic sparingly (for titles and occasional emphasis),

    and avoid underlining plain text (people often mistake

    underlined plain text as a link).

  3. As far as colors go, keep in mind that 8-12% of the population is color blind.

  4. The most common form of color blindness is Red-Green, where the colors

    red and green can appear as a shade of brown. Placing red text on green,

    or vice versa, may yield an unreadable web page for roughly 10% of your visitors.

  5. Similar problems may occur when using red, green, and brown in graphics

    (pie charts, graphs, maps, etc). Instead, consider using textures and

    fill patterns. Otherwise, use colors with a good measure of contrast

    (light tones vs. dark tones).

  6. Try to minimize your use of textured backgrounds. If you must use them,

    make sure they are very low contrast. Be especially careful when choosing

    font and link colors on a colored background.

  7. Also, avoid animated gifs (or have them loop only once or twice). They

    are distracting when trying to read text on a page, and for some people

    with certain learning disabilities animated gifs may be very difficult

    to ignore.




Consistent layout.

  1. Determine a common layout for your all of your web

    pages, and stick to it. This greatly assists visitors in

    navigating your web pages, and for some may determine their

    ability to understand the organization of your pages.

  2. Placement of the title, logo, navigation and content should

    be consistent from page to page.

  3. Navigational links should be placed within the first "screen"

    the viewer encounters on any given page (they shouldn't have to scroll

    to find the links).




"No Frames" compatibility.

There are two options for those of you with web pages using

"frames" (if you don't know what "frames"

means, it's probably not you).

  1. Maintain a text-only or non-frame version of your web site in

    parallel with your framed version. The text-only/non-frame

    version must be kept as up-to-date as the framed version.

    This basically means maintaining two versions of your web site.

  2. --OR--

  3. Redesign your site so that it doesn't use frames.

In essence, you need to weigh creating and maintaining an up-to-date

parallel non-frames (or text only) site vs. doing a site redesign.




Viewable with ANY browser

  1. Use evaluation tools and text-only browsers to verify accessibility.

  2. Your site needs to work with all types of browsers, including text-only

    browsers like Lynx, and screen-reader technology (for the visually

    impaired). Lynx gives you a good (though not perfect) approximation of

    how some of the new technology for the disabled "reads"

    or represents a web page.

  3. Another option is to find out if there is an accessibility lab on

    a nearby campus which may be used to test your web pages.

  4. It is also good idea to download a version of Lynx

    (or telnet to the campus version - just type "lynx"

    at the telnet prompt), and view your web pages through it to

    see how they appear. Lynx is not the most intuitive program for those

    of us used to Netscape and Internet Explorer, but it's a basic

    piece of software, and the instructions at the bottom of

    the page are simple and clear. If you don't use telnet, you

    can download (free) a PC version of Lynx from

    title="Lynx Browser. Opens in new window">,

    and versions for Mac and other platforms may be found at

    title="Lynx Browser for other platforms. Opens in new window">at this URL.

  5. If you are using Cascading Style Sheets on your web pages, make

    sure your practices are in line with the recommendations by the World

    Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Accessibility Recommendations (see URL at bottom of page).




Offer alternative to online forms, PDF, JavaScript, etc.

  1. All information in non-HTML file formats, newer technologies

    (such as Flash/Shockwave, Real Audio, QuickTime, etc.), HTML

    forms, PDF, JavaScript, and the like, should be available in plain

    HTML or text formats.

  2. Failing that, a method of communicating with the information

    provider and obtaining the information in alternative formats

    (for the visually or hearing impaired) should be made easily available.




To Accomodate Visually Impaired or Blind Users






Supply descriptive text attributes (alt, longdesc, title,

map, etc.) for images, links, graphs, charts, tables,

image maps.

  1. Images: include "alt" tags for all images.

    "alt" descriptions should be short but understandable

    to someone who is visually impaired. If you're using a WYSIWYG

    editor, you should be able to enter "alt" descriptions by

    double clicking on a web page image, and entering alternative text

    in the text field.

  2. Links: when creating links, don't link a

    whole sentence. Link only a couple of key words or a short phrase.

    Reading a sentence (or several sentences) of bold, underlined,

    colored text can be tiring for even the best vision.

  3. Graphs, charts, maps: if a graph, chart,

    or map is integral to your message or content, include a link to

    a separate page holding a text description of the information presented

    in the graphic. This is true of other important images as well.

  4. Tables: tables can be tricky. Some screen readers read

    only from left to right, regardless of table borders. For detailed information

    on how to produce accessible tables, please see

    title="W3C Site. Opens in new window">the W3C table markup document.

  5. Image maps: like tables, image maps can be complex.

    W3C advises, "For image maps, either use the 'alt' attribute

    with AREA, or use the MAP element with A elements (and other text)

    as content."

  6. Audio describe videos.

    If you are providing video clips on your web pages,

    there must be accompanying audio text which describes the

    video information for the visually impaired.




To Accomodate Users With Hearing Loss






  1. Provide text or visual cues for all auditory

    information (voice, sounds, etc.).

    Where sound is used, be sure to provide a link to a

    page containing a text representation of description of

    the auditory information.

  2. Caption all videos.

    Likewise, make a text version of the information available.




To Accomodate Users With Motor Impairments






Keep the site easily navigable.

Have a menu bar in the same location on each page.

Limit the number of clicks needed to navigate through the site.






A founder of, Marlene (say "Mar-lay-nuh") currently lives in Virginia and is a web and print designer, massage therapist, photographer, artist, burner (person who attends Burning Man), dancer, activist and yogini. In years past Marlene served as's executive director and treasurer, though she's not much involved these days. But she still encourages visitors to give to

Marlene began exploring computer-generated graphics with a purchase of the first Mac 128K in 1984. She's subsequently been involved in print design, illustration, and since 1995, professional web design and development. Her other skills are information architecture, usability testing and site management (the largest at 14,000+ pages). Additionally, she's taught seminars, has been published on A List Apart, and contributed to and reviewed a chapter on which appears in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Designing Large Scale Web Sites.

Check out her portfolio at

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