WEB CONTENT ACCESSIBILITY (WCA)

At one time I was a Technical Advisor (volunteer) for Access World Design and Development, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to training of the disabled in accessible web design. We had members who were severely disabled (including Deafblind or with respirator dependent Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) who we trained to become independently proficient Web authors using the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It was a most rewarding experience and I remain committed to Web Content Accessibility to this day.

What is Web Content Accessibility all about?

The first thing that comes to mind is accessibility for people with disabilities, and that indeed is the main thrust, but most Internet users have only a vague concept of how that applies to the World Wide Web, particularly the rendering of web pages.

As one of my friends put it "I always thought this concept of accessibility referred to wheelchair ramps, hand rails, instructions in Braille and extra wide toilet stalls. How does all this relate to the Internet?" A fair question that deserves a thorough explanation.

As you are creating or reading a web page in the customary way imagine that you:

Web page Accessibility for People with Disabilities is important in many ways, not the least of which is sheer humaneness and consideration for fellow human beings who yearn to freely access and enjoy the many commonplace things that non-disabled people take for granted.

There are other considerations too.

People with Disabilities are disproportionately high users of the Internet for shopping, and it follows that they seek out and frequent Web pages that are notably accessible, those that are considerate of their needs and friendly to them. So there is often a considerable commercial component to Web Content Accessibility.

There are many legal implications attending Web Content Accessibility. Some countries (USA, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, et al.) now have laws requiring full Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities for all Government Agency Web pages at all levels. In many instances this also extends to Web pages of public institutions and facilities that receive government financial support or recognition.

There are also incidental benefits inherent in accessible Web page production for Web page authors.

Web pages that are fully accessible to people with disabilities present information in a direct and simple way, navigate with consistency, function satisfactorily in all user agents, and are easy to maintain.

Web authors do not need to change their design approach or methodology in order to produce Web pages that are WCA compliant. In fact, most existing pages can easily be made fully accessible with very little effort or change. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are now used extensively for page layout, thereby separating content from presentation. However, pages should function as intended when Style Sheets are turned off or not usable as is often the case with old Browsers.

Easy things that Web Authors can do to enhance the Accessibility of their pages:

Not providing meaningful alternative text for images is the most frequent Accessibility error committed by Web Authors, fortunately one that is easily corrected. Appropriate Use of Alternative Text by WebAIM is an excellent reference and guide for complying with this essential WCA requirement.

Heretofore, most users were content to accept page layout (presentation) and function the way it was delivered to them by Web authors, browser display preferences were uniformly not easy to change and the user base was generally unsophisticated in the ways of browser use. Now users have the capability to readily manipulate the layout or substitute their own style sheets when viewing pages in order to meet their personal tastes and needs.

For such people the ability to instantaneously substitute such things as their own designations of text size and style, text/hyperlink color combinations, text/background color contrasts and image rendition toggling, is a great feature. Web pages that are inaccessible for them as originally presented can now be made reasonably accessible via Browser configuration choices or by using their own stylesheets.

A quick and handy way to zoom and/or change text size via keyboard shortcuts when viewing web pages:

When using MSIE .....

When using Firefox ..... same as with MSIE (You can specify "change text size only" in Firefox via the top menu bar: View ---> Zoom ---> Zoom Text only. Setting remains until changed. The above keyboard shortcuts will now only change the text size leaving the image sizes as original).

When using Safari/Chrome ..... same as with MSIE except the keyboard shortcuts only change the text size leaving the image sizes as original.

When using Opera ..... same as for Firefox/MSIE except use shift + for Zoom out.

The above procedures are especially well suited for web page viewing by People with Disabilities who cannot use a mouse (duchenne muscular dystrophy, etc.) and therefor rely on stylus/keyboard functions. Visitors who use a scrolling mouse can zoom/increase text size very fast via ctrl scroll -- for all Browsers listed above -- keyboard shortcut ctrl 0 (zero) returns to original size.

Web developers/authors might want to check pages they are composing to be sure navigation is not affected by incremental zooming (visitors will seldom zoom more than three increments). In my experience, many visitors (especially those with diminished vision) to web pages now increase the text size by one or two increments for easier reading especially when very small text is encountered.

Free Accessibility textual/audio Browser:

The WebbIE Browser is a Windows based implementation that displays Web pages by default in enlarged text mode. It can be toggled to graphics mode via toolbar selection and also reads and displays RSS feeds. Image alt text display can be specified via toolbar options selection which produces a fully functional textual browser. It can also be configured as an audio screen reader. Note, The lead-off link points to a somewhat outdated page. I did that because it contains illustrations of WebbIE in action. WebbIE functions perfectly in all current Windows versions. Use this download page. The installation is easy and fast. WebbIE is a compact, easy to use, implementation.

Fire Vox - A Screen Reading Extension for Firefox

This is a full featured audio Screen Reader that functions flawlessly as a Firefox Browser extension. It is accompanied by an excellent online manual and tutorials. The Fire Vox package (including download, installation and online manual) is available at the Fire Vox Information page.

Inexpensive audio Screen Reader:

TextAloud is easy to install, set-up, and use. Toolbars are installed for IE & Firefox Browsers. It is a Windows implementation and is available at NextUp.com as a 15 day free trial download.

Free "Lynx emulation" textual Browser:

The Yellowpipe Lynx (text only) viewer is an excellent utility that emulates the output of the most popular textual Browser.

Visit my Screen Reader page for more information relating to Screen Readers.

Manually checking Web pages for Accessibility:

One way is to Disable images, style sheets (CSS) and, if necessary, page colors. The resultant display emulates how the page renders in Screen Readers and text-only Browsers. It also depicts the structure, including use of headers, of the page.

Automated WCA Checker:

Web Content Accessibility conformance is hard to measure using automatic checkers, which should be considered as just helpful tools. The HiSoftware, "Cynthia Says", Portal is a free Web Content Accessibility Checker. It is based on the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Checklist and indeed displays the Validation results on a depiction of it. Mozilla incorporates Cynthia Says into its Firefox Browser via Tools>Web Developer>Tools>Validate WAI/Section 508. It is also available from the Tools drop-down menu if you have the Chris Pederick Web Developer toolbar installed. Cynthia Says will not insure WCA conformance but it is an excellent aid.

IE Browser Accessibility Toolbar:

In my opinion this is an outstanding extension. It is an excellent facility, reminiscent of Chris Pederick's Web Developer Extension for the Firefox Browser.

Firefox and Accessibilty:

In my opinion the Firefox Browser, augmented with the add-ons outlined below, is an excellent development tool for Web authors committed to optimum Accessibility. There is a good selection of WCA oriented add-ons available at:

Firefox Add-on Developer tools (extensions)

I particularly recommend the following:

The downloads are very easily installed and only a quick re-start of Firefox is needed to activate them.

There are several online references, tools, and resources available to serve committed Web page Authors.

James Gallagher, a friend of mine, is deafblind from birth and lives in Scotland. He is a remarkable individual in that he composes and publishes his own Web pages!

Please check out his page: A-Z Deafblindness -- http://www.deafblind.com/

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