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Accessibile Web sites. Explain to me:

  1. How blind people use computers.
  2. How blind and partially sighted people read documents and web pages with pictures.
  3. The basics of good and bad features of web pages.

1: How do blind people use computers?

People who have never met anyone who is blind are often surprised that somebody with reduced or no sight can use a computer at all. How can they read the screen?

Some blind people use Braille readers to "display" the words on the screen: a box of pins that protrude. The blind person runs her/his fingers over the Braille, then taps a key for the next line to be processed.

Most people who cannot read a computer screen use a screen reader: a piece of software that reads aloud what is displayed on the screen. This web site has examples of documents being read by a screen reader, and the latest version of Acrobat Reader has the facility to read a file's text aloud.

2: How do blind and partially sighted people read documents and web pages with pictures?

photo with alt text caption capturedA screen reader copes with text easily, though tables and different languages can cause problems. It can only describe a picture if the author has included a description either in the nearby text, or if the picture has been captioned or given alternative text for the screen reader software to read aloud. Sighted people can see captions on web pages by rolling their mouse pointer over a graphic, as shown in the photograph to the right.

To be accessible, all photos and graphics in any electronic document should have alternative text: web page, Word or PowerPoint file.

A screen reader will read aloud the description that the author has included in what to many people would be an invisible and undetected caption. This web site has examples of a screen reader coping with image captions.

3: Some basics of good and bad features of web pages.

Structure and Headings

arrow indicates styles feature top left in WordAll electronic documents including web pages need to be properly structured and images properly labelled. The use of headings in a document serves the same purpose for screen readers as it does for eyes: allowing the sections of a document to be scanned.

A screen reader can identify headings if they are used from the styles and formatting function rather than just changing the size of text. In Word, for example, you should use the heading styles available as shown in this diagram. This is prefereable to using the text font and size options that are immediately alongside the Styles option as Word embeds only the font and size into the doccument, not the heading's level of imporetance.

To show structure, a heading 2 follows a heading level 1. A heading 3 will always follow a heading 2.

A screen reader can identify the different levels of heading and thus indicate a headings level of importance.

Anyone publishing any electronic document should know how to order their document appropirately, and companies should consider providing key secretarial and web staff with this training.

Accurate Code

A web page is essentially a piece of programming that displays text, graphics, and multimedia items through a web browser. It is important for screen readers and future technologies that web pages are constructed correctly.

Code can be checked using on-line checks: clicking on this W3C button will allow you to check the validity of both this page and the style sheet that controls the colours and text size.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Valid CSS on this web site

Easily change font size

If a web site's code and style sheet are correctly written, then one easily detected characteristic is the facility to change text size through the browser. This has nothing to do with a size change option built into a page as, if you think about it, few people will need this. If your eyesight requires larger text on all web pages, then you'll modify this in your browser for all sites.

Many web sites bolt down font, size and colour definitions, which they should not, so testing for text size change is a quick and easy test for accessibility.

Bad links

There are three kinds of bad links that I can think of:

  1. a link that points to a non-existent page;
  2. a link that is invisible on the page;
  3. a link that has a poor choice of word for the link.

Links to non-existent page.

The first fault is the most obvious and shows the need to fully test a web site before launch, and to check links on a site every few months. Some web authoring software will check links for you, but software cannot check for changing page content. We once had a link to an external beauty salon’s web page, which the web site owner changed to personal photos of the salon’s owner after a bad argument. External links are best checked by a person, I think.

Invisible links.

For many years, underlined text meant a link, and so sensible web authors stopped using underlining for emphasis to avoid confusion.

Underlining is less popular now so links may not be underlined at all: a technique used on this web site. However, it is very unhelpful for links to be the same colour as the main text and thus invisible to the sighted user, though users of screen readers will have an advantage with these sites.

People need to know where the links are, even if they are prepared to read your every word. An example of unhelpful links is included on this site.

Unhelpful choice of words.

A screen reader has the facility to save its user having to read a whole page, just as a sighted person can skim through a page to find the links: if they are not invisible.

Therefore, if your link just says click here for main index and click here to make contact, the screen reader will identify both links as “click here” and that's all. It is important to hyperlink words and phrases that give a strong clue as to the links destination, as I have tried to do on this web site.

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