Making Sure Everyone Can Access Your Site

When you’re designing and building a website—or anything else, for that matter—it’s easy to assume that the end users are just like you: Talented, good-looking, fashionable…the list goes on. And the end users, of course, are all of those things, especially our readers. Some of them, however, may have additional characteristics, and if you don’t have them too, it’s easy to forget about them. Some, for example, may have trouble seeing, hearing, typing, or using a mouse. The art of accommodating these users is called making your site accessible.

Section 508: Nothing to Do with Secret Government Black Ops

In many cases, there is no legal requirement to make your site accessible. However, it’s never a good idea to frustrate potential visitors, so accessibility really ought to be written into your design specification. Fortunately, there is a set of accessibility guidelines, known as the “Section 508” guidelines.

The term “Section 508” refers to a part of the 1998 amendment to the U.S. Workforce Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires that IT products and services developed or used by the Federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. The requirements apply only to Federal government agencies and to IT products and services provided to the Federal government by private businesses. However, the guidelines are useful also for sites that are not required to comply. The standards are not actually contained in the law; they’re developed and maintained by a Federal office called the Access Board, which was created by the law for that purpose.

6 Ways to Get Started with Section 508 Compliance

Here are some of the major provisions of the Section 508 guidelines as they apply to websites:

  1. Visually-impaired users often use screen reading software to convert text to audio and play that audio for the user to hear. This works well for text, but not so much for graphics. Therefore, graphics on web pages should always carry “alt text”, which is a label assigned to the graphic in the HTML code. This is especially important for graphical buttons that the user clicks on to make something happen. The alt text should be written in such a way that it makes sense when read by a screen reader. The “alt text” standard can also be met by providing a “text only” version of the site, with little or no graphical elements.
  2. The site should have some way for users with screen readers to skip “repetitive navigation links,” or navigation links that appear on every page. There are several ways to accomplish this in the page code.
  3. Text equivalents should be available for other non-text elements, such as audio and video. This commonly includes transcripts for audio and captioning for video.
  4. For forms, field labels should be placed as close as possible to the fields, check boxes, or option buttons they identify. All buttons should have labels. Because users with disabilities may use the TAB key to navigate instead of a pointing device, the TAB sequence for the form should be defined in a logical way.
  5. To accommodate color-blind users, items on web pages should not be identified by color alone. Always use text or some other symbol to identify objects. For example, if the required fields on a form are identified only by the color of their labels, a color-blind user may not be able to see the distinction. Use a symbol, such as an asterisk (*), or a bold typeface, or some other distinguishing characteristic.
  6. Text size should never be fixed; it should respect the browser’s Zoom setting so that people can make the text larger if needed. This is especially important when your target market is just about everyone under the sun, young and old.

These are just a few of the section 508 provisions. There are others, and there are services that can evaluate your site and make accessibility recommendations. Do some homework and talk with your web developer about how your site can be made more accessible to more users.