Question Time: Thinking About Website Accessibility

Question Time is a series in which we open up the floor to you, commenters. We invite you to share as you feel comfortable.

Today’s question revolves around website accessibility. There are scores of guides to making websites more accessible, and even some accessibility standards for websites. But if there’s one thing we know at FWD, it’s that “accessibility” is not one size fits all, and in fact sometimes accessibility needs actively conflict. While these guides make a great start for people who are just beginning to think about accessibility, they barely scratch the surface, and we would like to delve a little bit more deeply into what “accessibility” really means (and can be) on the web.

So: What makes a website accessible for you personally? (I, for example, have hand tremors, so I like it when spaces for clickable actions are big and well separated so that I don’t click the wrong thing, and don’t have to struggle to get the cursor to the right place. That’s not something I see mentioned very often in accessibility guides. ) Have you ever had a situation where you identified an accessibility issue on a website and asked someone to address it? What happened? If you run your own website, how do you address accessibility, especially when requests conflict? Do you have a quick list of things you look for right away when you see a website to decide if you want to/can stick around? Any pet peeves?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

20 thoughts on “Question Time: Thinking About Website Accessibility

  1. Hmm, I’ll just throw one or two things out for now. Something in particular I try to focus on on my blog is including enough link text, not just for descriptiveness but because some people, like yourself, find it hard to click on a tiny little link. So my rule is ‘link using two or more words’. Though I’ve just checked my site and I have slipped up a little lately, I can see two in-post links on the front page which are only one-worders! I’m pretty committed to being as disability-friendly as possible on my blog, though there’ve been times in the past where I just couldn’t do a transcript. I’ve done a bit of emailing asking videomakers to provide transcripts.
    .-= Chally´s last blog ..Blogiversary, or, a 2009 review =-.

  2. Transcripts and/or content summary on video or audio. I will invariably skip a video inlined with no description. Any kind of auto-playing content, video or audio. Let me get to it in my own time, thank you.

    Tiny clickable areas frustrate me too, as well as the annoying propensity some sites have to have link text next to a little button, and only the button is clickable, not the text. Bad design as well as bad accessibility.

    Another thing I find difficult is huge run-on paragraphs. Much better to have many small paragraphs, with bolded headings and section demarcations. (I admit I’m not very good at this in my own writing yet, at least beyond not having a single run-on paragraph.)

    In my own blog, I strive to include good image descriptions and link text. I’d welcome any suggestions for what I could do better.

  3. No SnapShots. SnapShots is a “feature” on blogs.. When a reader hovers over a link, a large popup box appears, showing a preview of the website that was linked to. In fact, anything where preview popups appear, obscuring what I’m trying to read, making it difficult for me to find my place again.

  4. @Katja: Oh, gah, that reminds me! One blog I recently discovered had “Reply” and “Quote” buttons on each of its comments… which only appeared when you mouse over a comment… and which overlay the text. Thus meaning that I can’t actually read the first several lines of text if I use the mouse pointer to keep track of where I am.

    (If anyone from The Border House blog is reading this, could you please change this? It’s quite annoying. I e-mailed you about it, but never did receive a response…)

  5. I like and peeve on lots of different things, but here are a few. Some are more peeves than strict accessibility, but hey, being annoyed reduces my chances of getting anything useful out of your site, doesn’t it?

    – Must have readable text. For me, this is black on pale or white; or, at least, standardised sorts of presentation so that my BlackOnWhite bookmarklet can tweak it.

    – Text presented as text. Remember the websites where people scan in something on paper and put it up as a jpg? Presenting information only as images hasn’t died out anywhere near as quickly or completely as it should have.

    – Use PDFs appropriately.

    – Nothing flashing. Or blinking. Or marqueeing. and NO FUCKING LAYOVER ADS OR INTERSTITiALS. EVER. ESPECIALLY NOT MOVING ONES.


    – No ads that look like part of the webpage. And none of those ridiculous and distracting in-text link ads. Grr.

    – Consistent, conventional navigation. No twee little obscurantist changes to essential nav like “Reply”/”Comment” buttons.

    – No Mystery Meat Navigation! Make sure navigation links are clearly labelled, in text. No Flash navigation. Keep things so that I can either see at a glance where I am and where I might want to go; or at least so I can do a cmd-F on the page to try to find the nav link I’m looking for.

    – Minimal use of popup/mouseover/dropdown for essentials, especially when the mouseover is badly coded and moves everything around on the page. OK for a few minor things, but not for basics like Home and About and Contact.

    – Minimal allcaps.

    – No justified text.

    – No splash pages.

    – If you can’t do or obtain a transcript for video or audio material, at the very least do some sort of summary or description, so that readers might (if they can) choose whether to put the spoons and download allowance into looking at the video or listenint to the audio; or, if they can’t access it at all, to let them have a hope of at least understanding a little of what the discussion is about. This is not only good accessibility, the keyword hitting is good search engine optimisation – and it will mean you, the site/blog author, can find the video page again when you’re looking for it in the future!

  6. Lauredhel: “- Nothing flashing. Or blinking. Or marqueeing. and NO FUCKING LAYOVER ADS OR INTERSTITiALS. EVER. ESPECIALLY NOT MOVING ONES.”


    Also no sounds that automatically start playing, whether it’s background music or something else. And if a site insists on having sound playing, FFS, give me an obvious button where I can stop the track or turn the sound off.

    And I like to be able to read the text, and for me thatmeans no white or light backgrounds of a certain kind, also no bright kind of light text on a dark background. I prefer dark background with text just enough lighter to read / contrast well with the background, or the other way around. Unfortunately different people might need exactly what I can’t stand to look at.
    No long paragraphs. On regular paper I can read quite long lengths of text, even if it’s all one wall, but on a screen I can only read very small blocks at a time.

  7. More comments, please! *grin*

    I run a couple of websites which are very visual in nature (for example, a picture database of hunter pets in World of Warcraft), but most of the accessibility guidelines I’ve read are focused on making sure that pages are accessible to text-only browsers or screen readers. I have implemented what I can, and I try to incorporate more every time I redesign the site. But I admit that I haven’t thought much about other aspects of accessibility.

    For example, I can tell you right now that my advanced search page has too many tiny fields too close together, and that a number of my pages have big blocks of text with a lot of very short embedded links. I knew there was a problem with these pages but I wasn’t able to identify it.

    Now you’ve given me some hints to think about. Thanks! And I’d love to hear more.

  8. I have real trouble with blinkies too. Here’s what I’ve done to pretty much solve the problem.

    1) I’ve disabled tags by toggling browser.blink_allowed in about:config in firefox

    2) I knock out blinking gifs and what not with the escape key when I load a page where it’s a problem. I should just disable blinking gifs entirely but sometimes I do get curious for that 1 in 100 times that I actually want to see an animated gif. There’s an option to nuke em permanently too.

    3) I installed flashblock so that annoying blinky flash ads and other website elements simply don’t load at all unless I click on them.

    I’m still trying to figure out how to get rid of those really, REALLY annoying overlay ads though…

    Other than that: I think the biggest accessibility issues I struggle with would be text-over-patterned backgrounds and the very rarely encountered (fortunately) copy protection “features” which make it hard to select text and/or present the text as an image because the way I navigate long paragraphs is to highlight a word in the middle of the paragraph so I don’t get lost.

  9. “Other than that: I think the biggest accessibility issues I struggle with would be text-over-patterned backgrounds and the very rarely encountered (fortunately) copy protection “features” which make it hard to select text and/or present the text as an image because the way I navigate long paragraphs is to highlight a word in the middle of the paragraph so I don’t get lost.”

    Samantha, that’s probably done with Java. If you are using Firefox there is an add on called NoScript that gives you some control over the scripts on a page. It isn’t perfect by a long shot, I’d like more control over which scripts I block instead of blocking them by site.

    My tip is to check your spelling so that people who are using screen readers or translation programs get an accurate idea of what you are saying.

    Other than that, I second everything that’s been stated, especially the tiny links and buttons. I think I have pretty good control over my mouse, and I still miss clicking my target a lot.

  10. I’m curious. For the people who have noted the difficulty they have in getting the mouse to focus on small links or controls, do you ever use the tab key or keyboard shortcuts (where they exist) to try to get there? The reason I ask is because the emphasis on keyboard accessibility is not intended to be just for screen-reader users, but for anybody who has difficulty maneuvering a mouse. This isn’t saying that making the link text or button bigger isn’t a good idea, I was just wondering how many people resort to the keyboard as a work-around.

  11. I try to use tab to select and other keyboard shortcuts, but they’re not consistent. Page creators are not always page designers; this often means that the tab-order on the page is in columns, left to right. It’s massively annoying to tab through a long list of utility choices (like tags and calendars) before the selection final reaches the middle column where the content is.

    I enlarge text by zooming up with the command-plus (or control-plus), and my pet peeve are sites with fixed column sizes. Our beloved FWD was an early offender, but the folks here worked hard to remedy that. Now I can zoom up the text and the content flows instead of spilling over.

    I also discovered a truly fabulous bookmarklet that turns off all style sheets. Find the actual code (add the words “disable CSS” to your bookmark bar by right-clicking or dragging) as well as demonstrations and explanations at this site.

  12. Flashing things aren’t ok, ever.

    Nor are defaults that I can’t change. Yes, yes, i know you just love your yellow background/green size 10 text. That’s nice. It makes my brain try to jump out via my eyes. And I can’t read that small, even if the colors don’t make my visual cortex barf. Really, designers, people know what they can & can’t read.

    Also, captcha is unaccessable. My boss acted like I was the worst person in the world for pointing this one out.

  13. @Kassiane: Gah, CAPTCHA, gah! People just do not think about the fact that those are inaccessible, not just to totally blind individuals, but also for people with visual processing issues, dyslexia, etc. And the audio ones are even worse; they sound like some sort of outtake from “Revolution 9” on the White Album.

    That reminds me of the worst CAPTCHA I’ve ever seen, incidentally. It had letters of random sizes… and it was case sensitive. I had to refresh about ten times before I got one that had characters that weren’t of ambiguous case (e.g., “X”, “O”, “C”, “V”, “W”…)

  14. Great idea this. Your comments are gold. I hate inaccessible captchas and agree about the audio. I blog about bad sites and sometimes get a response. Hate hate hate grey text because even when enlarged I can’t read it. I need a light uncluttered background and preferably black text. The weight of the text is important also, san serif font and no italics. Agree with pretty much all other comments.

  15. I just had a close up and personal issue with web accessibility that was new to me. I went to a blog that had a “subtle” animated background effect of falling snow, that was only visible when it crossed below words and images, because of the white background. My heartbeat shot to about 150% of normal. Had it been light blue falling snow instead of white, I quite possibly would have scarfed emergency painkillers before realising that no, it wasn’t my migraine aura.

  16. lauredhel – I’ve seen that on some wordpress blogs. (Medium Large comes to mind.) It freaked me out the first time I saw it, I can’t imagine worrying that it’s your head, not the website!

    (I’ve had that problem a couple times this year – when we watched movies in one class, the image was shaky, and I asked about it, prompting someone else to say that she felt sick. Luckily it got fixed, but headache and nausea city! And because my vision went wonky this spring, I’m a bit worried about it happening again and if something looks like it did during that terrifying period, I ask the professor/other students if it’s “messed up” for them too. And I once asked a professor to go to another slide because he had an old map up and the writing was blurry and my brain kept trying to read something unreadable…)

    Website access – I wish contact info was easier to find, so I could say, hey this is a problem. or just lavish them with praise. 😀

  17. Paragraphs and spaces between lists, even if the space is relatively small. If the text is right next to each other, it makes it more difficult for me to read.

    Related to this is what was mentioned earlier – the text has to actually be text. With larger paragraphs or essays I sometimes highlight over various parts in a line to help me pick those areas apart from the rest of the text, because otherwise I find myself reading parts of different lines and suddenly everything said doesn’t make sense because the context is gone. I picked up this habit from my partner and it works like a charm.

    Themes that don’t rely heavily on images or text overlaying images. Because if I change the text through something like Accessibar, suddenly it may not be readable in various parts of the page because the images can’t be changed, whereas the background of the webpage (provided it’s a color and not an image as well) can be. One of the forums I read has a black theme and because of the images, I can’t change it to black text on white. It becomes black text on the black theme.

    Punctuation. Capitalization helps as well. If a site doesn’t include one or both of these, I don’t stay. I can’t read garbled nonsense and I don’t want to give myself a headache trying to.

    Agreeing with the CAPTCHA thing – certain ones of those I can’t read and oftentimes there isn’t an audio alternative. One of the forums I post on uses CAPTCHA every once in a while on posts to help prevent botting. I hate it. Unrelated to websites but I’ve come across things like CAPTCHA in MMORPGs to help catch botters. I couldn’t read it and had to guess at what it said, but I had a limited number of tries and a time limit on top of that. I’m lucky I was able to guess it correctly on my last try, otherwise I would have been jailed for something I didn’t do because someone decided I must have been botting. After that I never played there again.

    A lack of Flash themes. Some of them I can tolerate, but otherwise I block Flash because it typically includes ads and background noises that throw me for a loop when I hear them and I don’t know where they’re coming from. If I hear something in the background behind my music, I start to think it’s a hallucination and panic until I’m able to find the source.

    On that note, a lack of background music or sounds in general. Or at the very least, not having them start automatically on loading. I need to have control over the sounds and music to keep myself from panicking.

    That’s about all I can think of right now…

  18. @Static Nonsense: Oh, gah, that reminds me of another irritation: sites done entirely in Flash with no plain-HTML alternative. I have Flash turned off by default on my desktop, and of course, most mobile devices don’t support it either. (Also, Flash doesn’t even *exist* on some platforms, like Linux for PowerPC processors.)

  19. A lot of these I agree with and I am pretty much able-bodied (not sure of a good way to put this). If only website designers would think before doing things most of these issues wouldn’t exist. They MUST know that flashing things annoy (if not nausiate) everyone. Pretty much any capcha I have issues with.

  20. Okay, a bit old, but a good place to ask.

    I run a daily (M-Sat) blog mocking a terrible comic called Pluggers.

    As I became more conscious of my ableist thoughts and behaviors, I worked on how to mock the comic without using ableist language. I think I’m doing well.

    However, I just realized that I don’t describe the picture. I was an HTML wiz at one point, but I don’t trust my ALT skills anymore.

    Here is the most recent one:

    (My 3rd anniversary was yesterday, taking the rest of the week off because I can.)

    Here are the other two:

    And one before I started:

    I put a poll up, but I don’t get enough visitors, so I’m asking those who really know and really need ALT or descriptions.

    Is this a good start?

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