Last week I attended a very informative meeting at The Carroll Center for the Blind that was organized by the Newton/Needham Chamber. The subject of web accessibility for the blind was one that had never occurred to me, which, I’m guessing, is the same for most of us who are sighted. One of the main reasons for the meeting was to educate folks like me. Here are a few pieces of information that are worth passing along.
One of the presenters gave a demonstration of how blind users can use the internet. Not surprisingly, it’s audio-driven, and it relies on software that reads websites to the user. At really fast speeds. So fast, in fact, that it sounded like complete and total gibberish to the untrained ear. For those of us who can see, we can often do a 3-second scan of a website and determine whether to linger or move on.
A blind person, however, has to hear what we see, and thus the need for an audio reader that can read at mach speeds. But if the software can’t read what’s on the site, then the user can’t navigate it, or has to guess what to do.
Many SEO techniques used to help a website become more visible to search engines are also used to optimize for web accessibility. Being conscientious, for example, about giving alt-tags to the various elements in your website is good for both SEO and web access. So if a blind visitor to the Reflection Films site lands on our logo, it reads “Reflection Films logo”, not “graphic_v2.png”, and he knows what he’s looking at.
The meeting was definitely not intended to scare us into making our sites accessible, but The Carroll Center presenters did inform us that, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses must make their services available to everyone, regardless of ability. Most often we think of this in the context of building entrances or bathrooms that are handicap accessible, but it also applies to the digital world as well.
Having said that, the presenters also emphasized that most of us are not at risk of being apprehended by the Department of Justice. Right now, the DOJ is more concerned that large companies comply. Eventually, it will become something that more of us will have to consider, but not anytime in the near future. Even so, they suggested that as a matter of principle, it would be good for all of us to be aware of the importance of web access and to take whatever small measures we can to improve our sites for blind visitors.
For organizations who want to understand how accessible their sites are and what they can do to improve them, The Carroll Center offers consulting. For more information, visit the Center’s web accessibility services page and get in touch with Bruce Howell.