Now more than ever it is crucial to think about how others can view your company website. Accessibility has at last begun to get some recognition. You need to think about your visitors and their potential problems in accessing your information and services. Get it right from the begining or consider a total website makeover – but think how you can comply with the law and provide a better user experience.
Demonstration of a screen reader
The demonstrator was a very experienced and talented surfer who regularly buys on-line using a screen reader as he is blind. He explained that most blind people do not use the internet for fun, the concept of ‘surfing’ is quite alien. It is an arduous process. Internet skill levels among non-sighted people are low and tend to remain low, they do not improve with practice or over time as a rule.
About screen readers
For the purpose of the demonstration a screen reader was used. A screen reader ‘reads’ the code on a web page and dictates it aloud to the user, it also provides some navigational features. Apparently there are a variety of screen readers, some of them are free but the most widely used costs around £1,000 with annual updates costing £200-300. This makes it a tool for businesses rather than private individuals.
We watched the transaction on screen via a lite-pro.
The task was to book a return flight from London to Madeira for two adults via the website of a well-known booking agent. The screen reader started reading the code from the top left of the screen. We, sighted, saw immediately that there was a facility on the web page to book a flight and our blind user was almost as quick, except he reached that point by using logic. He guessed that there would be ‘select’ boxes for data entry and he chose to move from box to box using a ‘find’ function. We did not realise until afterwards that he had missed a function to prescribe direct flights only, because it was not coded as a box but as a ‘radio button’. Inconsistent coding is a major problem for screen readers and a website accessibility priority 1 failure (Worldwide Web Consortium standards).
I had expected the task to be difficult and laborious but I was still caught out several times by my own acceptance of sight, for example there were three ‘select’ boxes for data entry about the travellers. One to indicate the number of adults, one for children with the words ‘2 to 12 years’ following it and one for infants, not described. A bit of reasoning tells us that an infant will be less than 2 years old but, because the age criteria for children followed the select box, the blind user did not pick it up, he had already moved to the next check box. His question, thoroughly reasonable, was ‘so how old is an infant?’ Key information provided after a select box may mean that the blind user has to retrace his steps and make a different selection.
Data entry complete, we searched for flights. As our blind user had not selected ‘direct flights only’ and had missed the drop down list to select an airport rather than ‘Madeira’ generally, we had some 300 plus flights to choose from. The website kindly culled these by price to show the best 32. These were in table format but the label in the code to indicate a table was not sufficiently adjacent to the table itself so our blind user missed it as he jumped from heading to heading to speed up navigation.
It took him approximately five minutes to work out that we were looking at a table. Part of the trouble was that the table had not been populated correctly, the text read from left to right instead of wrapping around in each cell. On screen, to sighted people, the table was fine. Behind the scenes there was poor coding and inconsistency.
Seeing a list of 32 possible flights on screen I quickly dismissed a number due to the fact that they were not direct flights and took several hours longer than necessary. Our blind user stumbled through the first couple and then had to check a footnote relating to price. To cut a long story short, footnotes are a navigational nightmare. First you have to find the footnote (they are not always at the very bottom of the page), then you have to find your way back to where you were in your table which, we now realise, is not numbered or referenced so there is no way to get back or to remember a suitable flight option.
We skipped the normal assessment process and selected a flight at random. The screen changed, we had been timed out. Our blind user was philosophical, it happens a lot and the trick is to keep going around the loop getting quicker and quicker at entering the data until you have made your selections within the allotted time and can proceed. This he did and we got to the checkout.
With the (huge) advantage of sight I asked him if he knew what was in his basket. We laughed and he said ‘flights’. ‘And what else?’ Insurance. We had gone through an insurance declaration but our blind reader had not picked up data entry points about whether insurance was needed. This had been pre-checked to ‘yes, add it to my basket’ probably illegally under the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990.
At the time I had also failed to see the information about insurance. Looking at the site afterwards the reason for this was clear. The information appeared after the ‘continue’ button on the screen and, by this time, after two data entry attempts, our blind user was navigating through screens using the ‘continue’ buttons trusting that he would be alerted if he missed any required data entry points. This navigation technique raised a further problem. On one page the ‘continue’ button was not coded as a button but was in fact a graphic. To the sighted there was no difference between it and other ‘continue’ buttons, to the screen reader it simply did not exist as a ‘button’. Again poor coding and inconsistency.
It was at this point also that our blind user realised he had only booked one flight, we laughed as he said ‘oh no I have forgotten the wife’. This was directly due to the requirement for speed so that we would not be timed out again.
The number of people affected
The Disability Rights Commission estimates that there are over 10 million people with disabilities in the UK. The RNIB suggests that, in addition to the 350,000 people registered as blind in the UK, there are another 2 million who have an eye condition so serious they are unable to identify a friend from across the street. Deterioration in sight is a common complaint as we get older. The current generation of over 60’s may not be particularly interested in enforcing their right to access the internet but each successive generation will be more and more accustomed to using the internet. They will object to having their access curtailed by physical disability when there is a law already in place supposedly to ensure their right of access.
Tips for improving accessibility
Booking a flight would be one of the more daring things to do, but it illustrated the points very well. In summary, and some of these points can be checked by non-technical people:
Make headings helpful, descriptive of the information contained in the following paragraph so that a user can decide whether or not the paragraph is relevant to him.
Never put relevant information after a ‘select’ point or after a ‘continue’ button on a web page. A blind user relies on the assumption that he has been given all relevant information before he is given the opportunity to proceed.
Never use footnotes, put explanatory text at the relevant point.
Consistent code, headings, lists, functions such as buttons are essential.
A screen reader can navigate by them – if they are good.
Food for thought!