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Making the Web More Accessible for People with Disabilities

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Reports indicate that at least 2.1 million of the estimated 54.4 million Americans with disabilities use the Internet. For people with disabilities, accessing and fully experiencing materials presented on the Internet can often be difficult.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “not all…disabilities affect access to the Web, but problems with vision, hearing, dexterity and short-term memory can have a significant impact on a person's ability to use online information and services.” For individuals with motor impairments, low vision or blindness, low hearing or deafness, and/or language or cognitive disabilities, assistive technologies or other accommodations can make it possible to access information online that would otherwise not be available to them.

 
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Step 1: Motor Impairments and Disabilities

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Motor disabilities can range in severity depending on the level of movement that the individual maintains. While some motor disabilities are due to a traumatic event such as a brain injury or the loss of a limb, others are the result of a disease or congenital condition, including muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, ALS, and cerebral palsy.

Despite the wide range of motor disabilities that might impact an individual's ability to use a computer and access the Internet, there are a few assistive technologies and devices that are frequently employed. Which device is most useful depends on the severity of the individual's disability, as well as their personal preference and what they find most helpful.
  • For individuals with limited movement, tools like mouth sticks or headwands may be useful. Mouthsticks tend to be inexpensive as well as being easy to use for most individuals, making them quite common.
  • These devices might be used in conjunction with adaptive keyboards, keyboard auto-completion software, or oversized ball mice.
  • If movement is even more limited, individuals may chose to use eye-tracking software to allow them to control mouse movement by following the movement of their eyes, or voice recognition software.
To make sure that content can be navigated easily by people using these devices or others, it's important to make sure that a user's movement on a website can be controlled by using a computer keyboard (either the tab key, arrows, or both).

Step 2: Low Vision and Blindness

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According to the American Federation for the Blind, around 1.5 million of the 7.8 million Americans who experience vision loss use computers. Vision-related disabilities include not only low vision and blindness, but also color blindness.
  • Individuals with blindness may use screen readers to access information online, but many screen readers are difficult to use since they rely in large part on alternative text (ALT text) and HTML tags to provide descriptions of images and other information.
  • Some individuals with low-vision may employ the use of software that allows them to zoom in on portions of a website and/or change font sizes to make them easier to read. Websites have also been created specifically to suit the needs of individuals with low vision (e.g., Accessible Twitter - which is not associated with Twitter, but provides tweets in large-font format).
  • For individuals with color blindness, information presented online can be difficult to understand. It is important for web designers to understand the importance of not relying on color to convey meaning, and providing other information cues whenever possible (e.g., using patterns to separate areas of graphs or graphics as well as colors).
Allowing users to change font color or size and ensuring the inclusion of ALT text and HTML tags can help individuals with visual disabilities to access material on a website.

Step 3: Low Hearing and Deafness

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An estimated 7.8 million Americans over the age of 15 experience some form of hearing loss, and according to report in the American Annals of the Deaf, 63 percent of those who took part in a recent study reported regular computer use.
  • Closed captioning for audio content online is helpful not only to individuals with low hearing and deafness, but also individuals accessing materials online. Now available on YouTube, closed captioning is quickly becoming more common but frequently relies on the individual uploading material to add the captions.
If video or audio is used to share information, including closed captioning will allow individuals with hearing-related disabilities to understand the information.

Step 4: Language or Cognitive Disabilities

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Individuals with cognitive or language disabilities may have a difficult time understanding information presented online. This type of disability can range from mild learning disabilities or dyslexia (which affects an estimated 15-20% of Americans) to severe cognitive disabilities. An individual with a profound cognitive disability may require assistance in nearly every aspect of daily living, while someone with a minor learning disability may be able to function adequately with a few minor adaptions.

Because of the wide variance among language and cognitive disabilities, it is very difficult to develop websites specifically designed to be easy to use by these groups. Some adaptions can be made to help a portion of individuals with language and cognitive disabilities, but content will always be too complex for some individuals.
  • If individuals must complete a series of steps, each step should be labeled to indicate the individual's progress (e.g., "Step 2 of 4").
  • Error messages should be written plainly and simply, and when possible designers should include tool tips and interactive help options to guide the user.
  • Visual cues should be used to highlight portions of text or content that is particularly important. This can help to guide users who may have attention deficit-related disabilities. These may include bulleted lists, headings, indented quotes, etc.
As outlined above, using clear language for error messages, indicating a user's progress through a series of steps, and using visual cues like bullets or highlighting can make websites easier for those with language or cognitive disabilities to follow.

Step 5: General Accessibility

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These steps outline only a portion of of the assistive technologies and design considerations that can help make the web more accessible for people with disabilities. There are a number of resources and tools available online to help website designers better understand how websites appear to individuals with different types of disabilities and how to make material online more accessible.
Federal guidelines were recently put in place in the U.S. to help ensure that websites are more accessible - the introduction of these guidelines coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass) “The ADA mandated physical ramps into buildings, today, individuals with disabilities need online ramps to the Internet so that they can get to the Web from wherever they happen to be.” With a few minor web design changes and the use of assistive technologies, people with disabilities can be ensured reliable access to materials online.
Thx for this. Making sites more user friendly for those of us with disabilities is an awesome thing.
kelseymh4 years ago
I thought I had seen a similar I'ble a while back, but the Instructables search didn't find anything. Finally, I looked in the RELATED column (duh)...Did you see this one?
shesparticular (author)  kelseymh4 years ago
I honestly hadn't even noticed it and didn't think to check before making mine. I suppose it's always good to get as much information about making the web accessible out as possible though.
kelseymh4 years ago
This is most excellent! I especially appreciate that you used Instructables' own Web site as examples of what needs to be improved. We have a number of users on the site with disabilities of various kinds.
shesparticular (author)  kelseymh4 years ago
Thanks so much!