Web standards vs. Accessibility

Lately I’ve seen some arguments that valid code and semantic markup – web standards – aren’t essential for making a website accessible to screen readers. I’m not going to argue against that. It is true to some extent. Screen readers need to eat the same junk food as visual browsers, so they also need to compensate for invalid markup.

Furthermore, screen readers don’t currently make proper use of all that tasty semantic markup we offer them. Because of this, some argue that using semantic and structured markup is more or less pointless from an accessibility perspective. If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you already know that I strongly disagree.

Even if using web standards did not benefit screen readers at all, that wouldn’t change anything. First of all, accessibility covers many other disabilities than blindness – something that is often forgotten. But for the sake of this argument, let’s focus on screen readers.

What if we were to completely remove screen readers from the equation? Let’s just assume that screen readers suddenly parse tag soup just as well as the Master of broken code, Internet Explorer, and have no problems making sense of even the most convoluted mess of nested tables, presentational markup and spacer GIFs. What then? Will there be no need to care about web standards and best practices anymore? Did we lose and the Frontpage jockeys win? Absolutely not.

Using valid, semantic, and well-structured markup combined with accessibility best practices makes for a better experience for many more than just screen reader users. In fact, it will give every web user a better experience because:

  • people that use other browsers than Internet Explorer and other operating systems than Windows will be able to use the site
  • user agents that have CSS disabled or do not support it will get unstyled but well-structured and fully usable (X)HTML
  • user agents that do not support JavaScript will still be able to use the site
  • the site will be faster thanks to reduced file sizes compared to table-tag soup
  • the site will be usable in mobile and handheld devices
  • accessibly marked up forms enhance usability for everybody
  • teenagers who like to lean back in their chairs while browsing the web as well as senior citizens will be able to increase font size without making text unreadable

I could go on. Accessibility is not just about screen readers or blind people. Making a site specifically tailored to screen readers is not accessibility – it is building a blind-only site that does not take into account the wide range of disabilities that affect the way people use the web or the many different browsing devices that are in use.

To me, true accessibility is building one site that works for everybody, disabled or not, and whatever user agent or operating system they prefer. And that is the web I want to build and use.

Posted on June 16, 2005 in Web Standards, Accessibility