Accessibility myths and misconceptions

Awareness of web accessibility is increasing, slowly but surely. You can read about it on mainstream websites and in printed newspapers. Here in Sweden you can even read about web accessibility on the back of milk cartons. Accessibility getting more attention is excellent, but it's very unfortunate that in many cases the information being spread is inaccurate and misleading.

Misconceptions about web accessibility are very common. What's even worse is that it's also common to see people trying to take advantage of the low knowledge of accessibility among those responsible for websites. It's a disgusting trend that I wrote about some time ago in Accessibility charlatans.

I'd like to talk about a few of these accessibility misconceptions, and hopefully provide information that helps explain why these myths are just myths. Feel free to use this as a checklist when explaining web accessibility to someone. If you happen to be on the buying end, use it to ask relevant questions to anyone that tries to sell accessibility services to you or your company.

Accessibility is just for blind people

While it's true that the blind and vision impaired are an important target group and among those that benefit most from it, web accessibility is about more than making it possible for blind people to access information. Much more.

Web accessibility is about building websites that work regardless of which web browser or operating system you're using, and regardless of any disability you might have. It's about respecting different peoples' different needs and personal preferences. Not everybody uses the web in the same way, with the same equipment.

Accessible websites maximise the number of possible visitors and are easier for everybody to use, disabled or not. This includes search engine robots -- blind or severely vision impaired visitors that you definitely do not want to prevent from accessing your site.

Accessible websites are ugly and boring

Yes, some definitely are. There are also millions of completely inaccessible websites that are dull and lifeless. Accessibility in itself has nothing to do with whether a site is boring and ugly or not. A lack of understanding of what accessibility is and how to make a website accessible can, on the other hand, result in a site that is not very visually attractive.

Accessibility does not mean removing all colour and graphics. What it does mean is thinking about how colour is used and providing alternative content for images and other graphical objects that are informational or functional.

Ugly or not -- no matter what a website looks like, in most cases the content is what's most important. Maybe not to the website owner and probably not to the designer, but definitely to the site's visitors.

Accessibility is expensive and difficult

Retrofitting full accessibility into a large and completely inaccessible website can in some cases be difficult, expensive, and take a long time, that much is true. But if you know how accessibility works and do things the right way from the beginning, the costs involved are very much negligible. Plus you greatly reduce the risk of having to rebuild the site after a couple of years, either because of changes in browser technology or because legislation requires it.

Building an accessible website will save you money in the long run.

Unfortunately it's still quite unusual for web professionals to have adequate skills in web accessibility, so the real problem may be finding an accessibility-savvy web design firm.

Offering a text-only version is good enough

Some believe that by offering a text-only version of their website they no longer need to make their main site accessible. That is incorrect.

Text-only versions are not a good idea, for several reasons:

Besides, a site that offers a text-only version is even more likely to be inaccessible to many who do not have a disability -- for example anyone using an alternative web browser, people who have JavaScript turned off or have set their browser to not display images. And to search engine robots. Why? Because the developers may be tempted to ignore all accessibility and other good practice guidelines for the main version since they have a supposedly accessible text-only version.

Only if all else fails is an alternative, text-only version acceptable. And I find it hard to imagine such a situation.

Customisation and read-aloud functionality

While offering visitors customisation options -- for instance making it possible to change text and background colours, font and font size -- is good, unfortunately such options are, at least in Sweden, often used as an excuse for not doing anything about a website's fundamental problems. There are many sites that have useless customisation possibilities -- useless because the foundation is so shaky that being able to change a few colours and increase text size only makes the site marginally more accessible.

Increasing text size, by the way, is something that just about anyone using the web is able to do without the site providing a special function for it. Even Internet Explorer for Windows can do that if you change its preferences to allow for it. Informing visitors of how to make those changes is probably not enough, but if more sites made that information available, more people would become aware of the possibility.

Offering customisation options is not a bad thing to do. On the contrary -- it is a very good thing. But it isn't the first thing to do when a improving a site's accessibility. It's better to make sure the site has a solid and sound foundation to build on.

Some sites have functionality that lets the visitor listen to the content. It's an interesting add-on that may be useful to some groups of visitors but just a gimmick to others. As with customisation options for the site's visual appearance, there is nothing wrong with offering such functionality. However, it's better to take care of the basic problems first and then spend whatever time and money is left on bells and whistles.

Interesting. I want to learn more.

Good! Knowledge will help you see through misconceptions and misinformation, and will enable you to make better decisions.

Here are a few excellent resources for anyone interested in learning more about web accessibility:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
The current W3C guidelines that explain how to make Web content accessible to all users.
Access Matters
A site that uses quizzes to explore web accessibility techniques and best practices.
A collection of useful resources, links to accessibility sites, a discussion forum, and more.
Building Accessible Websites
The online version of Joe Clark's very detailed book on accessibility. Even better, buy the book.
Dive Into Accessibility
An online book that explains why and how you can make your website more accessible.


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Posted on May 25, 2005 in Accessibility