11-Feb-20 | News

Accessibility: why you should get on board

Head of Accessibility and Senior Accessibility Specialist at the Government Digital Service (GDS)

Imagine you are on a train

Accessibility isn’t just about permanent or even temporary disabilities. Have you ever tried accessing a website on a train?

You might experience situational impairments. Your movement can be restricted. The train vibrates making it difficult to click on links or operate small buttons. Background noise and interruptions can affect hearing and concentration. Sunlight, particularly when the sun is low in spring and autumn, can make things difficult to read.

You can’t stop many of these things from happening, but good accessible design can help reduce the effects.

How do you explain a picture over the phone?

Think about the different senses. The information in a picture can’t be seen by someone who is blind. Images sometimes contain text, but even if they don’t, they often contain important information. Users of screen reader software need that information described in text, as it can be easily converted to speech. The text, known as alt or alternative text, should not just be a literal description of the picture, but should be the information the picture conveys.

Audio content on your pages may not be directly available to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Try turning the sound off on an instructional video which doesn’t have captions, and see how much you can understand. Providing captions (or ‘subtitles’, as we tend to call them in Europe) helps many people. A useful side-effect of this is that by providing captions, you can improve your search engine ranking. 

How do you embed accessibility?

One area that has largely remained unaddressed is the accessibility of documents, particularly PDFs (Portable Document Formats). GDS recommends avoiding publishing via PDF whenever possible, because the PDF format was created for printed documents, and therefore lacks much of the built in structure and consistency of HTML and CSS web pages.

PDFs can be made accessible, but require quite a lot of work to do so. Start with accessible templates for all new documents, and use Acrobat Professional to test the accessibility of PDFs (although I acknowledge it is often not an available option because of cost).

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