Understanding Web Accessibility Obstacles

Posted March 1st, 2009 by Mike Cherim

More than any other factor, it is the understanding of web accessibility obstacles that has best assisted me in the pursuit of making my sites and those of my clients as accessible as possible. But isn’t that always the way? We cannot avoid danger if we cannot recognize it. That’s what I tell my son. I stress that he can do anything he wants to in life, but before jumping in with both feet he would be smart to first identify the risks so that he may avoid them. As this pertains to web accessibility the risks are, of course, a lack of access to those who need it. And to succeed, we are smart to first identify those risks so that we, too, may avoid them. On behalf of our sites’ users.

Hopefully this smacks of an undeniable logic. We can certainly start reading specifications — only to grow confused and frustrated no doubt — but we will find the greatest level of understanding by starting with the users and their needs. We can struggle with rules that tell us to do this and do that to ensure screen reader users can access our content, but starting with the screen reader users themselves and the software they rely on will offer an unparalleled clarity. In other words we can finally understand why the rules exists and what impact not adhering to them can have. From there our decisions will be informed.

If you have poor vision, or if you’re blind, or if you can only use your keyboard — or if you like to use your keyboard — then you’re half way there. You know the obstacles. If you have to use a pointer or trackball arrangement because you lack limb mobility, then you, too, know what impedes your experience. But most of us don’t have to struggle with a handicap, and in turn may find real empathy difficult. Face it, short of being there, we must find understanding of the obstacles of web accessibility in some other way. Somehow we must wear the shoes of impacted users.

Gaining Understanding

What follows are lists of resources that can help you gain better understanding of disabled users, the web accessibility obstacles they have to put up with, and the equipment they use to get to and hopefully enjoy our sites.

User Feedback

This type of resource is invaluable as it’s coming directly from the users themselves.

Explanatory Articles

These articles are derived from interactions with actual users or offer insight.

Tools of Enlightenment

These tools are the real-thing or can at least help us create similar situations.

And a Tip…

When I was researching this article (which was harder than I expected it to be) I reached out to GAWDS members and accessibility guru Richard Rutter suggested some links. I did use some of them in the lists above, but some didn’t really fit into my categories or actually show things from the user’s point of view as much as I wanted. Still, though, I posted some and I also want to pass along what he offered in the form of a tip to help folks gain better understanding.

To simulate (sort of) motor impairment, and to a lesser extent contrast-related vision impairment, try testing a website on a laptop by using it on a moving train (more particularly a train bumping its way through London). Alternatively have someone push you round the office on a chair and see if you can still navigate around the website (sounds silly and trivial, but highlights the problems of small target areas and keyboard access). — Richard Rutter

More Needed

The lists on this page are surely incomplete. I included those I remembered or those someone kindly reminded me of. If you know of a resource that fits specifically into one of these lists that will help accessible web developers wear the shoes of those to which web accessibility really means something, please share.

4 Responses to: “Understanding Web Accessibility Obstacles”

  1. Ross Bruniges responds:
    Posted: March 1st, 2009 at 10:05 am

    A good article about practical accessibility and the autor (Dirk Ginader’s) experiences with developing alongside a screen reader user can be read at jQuery Accessible Tabs - How to make tabs REALLY accessible

    Good practical tips and has the added bonus of also being translated in German in the same blog!

  2. Dave Woods responds:
    Posted: March 2nd, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Nice article Mike with some great resources. I always find http://diveintoaccessibility.org/ a useful resource too as an introduction to accessibility. I find it a much better way of trying to convince web developers of the benefits of accessibility by introducing them to ways it actually benefits real individuals rather than expecting them to slog it through the WAI document.

  3. Christophe Strobbe responds:
    Posted: April 14th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    There are a number of other simulation tools that you could use. For example, the capability simulators in Cambridge University’s Inclusive Design Toolkit, and — for the really ambitious — the third-age suit.

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