NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2004
Accessibility for Everyone
by Billy Mabray
From February 2004 eMonitor, Oklahoma City PC Users Group
(click to email author)

Many people, including a lot of Web designers, think Web-site accessibility is only about making sites work for blind users with screen reader software. Accessibility should be about all of us. There is a wide range of physical conditions that can make using the Web difficult. The Internet can be a frustrating place when you have poor eyesight, colorblindness, or trouble using a mouse. You may not fall into any of these categories right now, but consider this statistic: 100% of Internet users are growing older. At some point, we will all need help navigating the Web.

There are many things that can be done to make the Web more accessible. Some of those things are already built into your Web browser. Others require Web designers to implement accessible features on their Web sites. If you are one of the many people who has difficulty using the Web, you will want to know what help is out there.

One of the biggest complaints people have is that text is too small. It is also the easiest to remedy. If you are using Internet Explorer, choose View>Text Size from the top menu. Also, if your mouse has a scroll wheel, you can hold the CTRL key and scroll up and down to change the text size. Now, this will not work on all Web pages – later, we will discuss why that is and what Web designers can do about it. The Netscape/Mozilla browser, however, can change text size on all Web pages. Choose View>Increase Text Size, or hold CTRL and press the + key.

There are many shortcut keys available for those who have difficulty using a mouse. For example, the backspace key will take you to the previous page, F5 will reload your current page, and ALT plus the Home key will take you to your home page (the page set to load when you open your browser). Also, if you have gone back to a previous page, ALT plus the right arrow will take you forward again. Another useful key on any Web page is the TAB key. You can use the TAB key (and SHIFT plus TAB to go in reverse) to quickly navigate forward through all the links and form fields on a Web page. Once you have tabbed to a form element, other keyboard shortcuts may come in handy. For drop-down boxes, you can use the up and down arrows to highlight your selection. For radio buttons or checkboxes, use the space bar to select your choice. If you are using a recent version of Netscape/Mozilla, you can also use “Find As You Type.” Start typing at any page and it will automatically do a search for what you are typing on that page.

Some people, particularly the colorblind, find Web sites hard to use because the color of the text does not contrast enough with the background colors. If the color scheme of your favorite Web site makes it difficult to read, you can override that as well. You will find this under Tools->Options or Edit->Preferences, depending on your browser. You can set your default fonts, font sizes, and page colors. You can also specify that your defaults always override what is set by the Web page.

While these browser features can be helpful, there is still much Web designers must do to make their site accessible to the widest possible audience. A good example is text sizing. If Web designers use fixed text sizes – sizes that specify an absolute unit of measurement, such as points or pixels – on their pages, Internet Explorer users cannot change their text size as I described earlier. Web designers can, and should, use relative text sizes to make their pages more accessible. Designers who prefer to use absolute sizes for text should provide a “style switcher.” This is a link on the page that allows the site's visitor to make the text bigger and saves that preference in a cookie.

Another accessibility feature that some designers use is access keys. These are just like the shortcut keys I mentioned earlier; except they are defined by the Web page you are on. For example, the designer could define ALT plus 4 to take you directly to the search function. If you visit a site regularly and know their access keys, they can be useful.

Web designers should also use labels for forms. Labels make the text next to a form field clickable, just like the field itself. For example, if a form has a checkbox that reads, “Click here to subscribe,” and that text is set as a label, the user can click anywhere on that text to check the box. It can be very helpful to have a larger target when trying to click things with a mouse.

We still have a long way to go before the Web is accessible to everyone. But now you know some of the helpful features you have at your fingertips already, and you know what to ask for from the Web sites you frequent. Hopefully, as users learn what they can do, and designers learn what they need to do, we can all enjoy the Web a little more.

Billy Mabray and his wife, Angela, own Smart Goat, a local software development and web design business. They are members of the OKCPCUG. Comments or questions on the article are welcome and can be addressed to: billy@smartgoat.com.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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