Develop a Web site accessible by visually impaired users and comply with the law

Poorly designed Web pages create a significant challenge to someone who cannot see your Web pages. However, it is easy to make good decisions about page design -- once you understand the Section 508 standards and have some tools in your back pocket. By using the tools outlined, you broaden the audience for your products or services and put your Web site in compliance with U. S. Federal law.

At a large public university, I recently assisted a project team in testing a Web-based application we made available to several hundred thousand alumni. Application usability was a key success criterion for the project. Recognizing that numerous alumni might be blind, color blind, or have some other visual impairment, we worked to make the application comply with the Federal standard for accessibility, Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. This law "requires that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public."

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If you do not work for a Federal agency, the law probably does not apply to your organization. That being said, I firmly believe that equal access to Internet resources is a moral issue that we developers should strive to address. In the United States alone, countless people are affected by visual impairment.

The American Foundation for the Blind estimates there are approximately 10 million visually impaired people in the United States, of which approximately 1.3 million are legally blind. Citing statistics from a 1999 U.S. Bureau of the Census report, the Foundation indicates that just over 1.5 million visually impaired people in the United States have access to the Internet.

Projecting from a report on the Internet World Stats Web site, which states the usage of the Internet in the United States has doubled since 1999, we can reasonably conclude that approximately three million visually impaired people in the United States have access to the Internet.

Globally, that number is probably many times higher, based at least upon projections from the All About Market Research organization. They indicate Internet usage worldwide has quintupled since 1999. It is easy to see that by making your Web site accessible, you may open doors for many more visitors.

Take a test

Would a blind person find your organization's Web site easy to use? Take a simple test: Go to your organization's home page, close your eyes, and try to navigate the Web site. Since you no longer can see the visual cues that simplify navigation, your interaction with the Web site becomes a frustrating experience. You may wonder how someone with a visual impairment explores your Web site. Happily, there many simple accommodations you can make to improve accessibility.

Screen readers

Someone with a visual impairment could browse the Internet with the help of a screen reader. Such tools narrate the text that appears on a Web page, and give the user an auditory roadmap of the structure, links, and controls on the displayed Web page. These tools also provide a comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts for Web site navigation.

Unfortunately, poorly designed Web pages create a significant challenge to someone who cannot see your Web pages -- even when using a sophisticated screen reader. Since the screen reader commonly scans text from left-to-right, rows and columns of data are difficult for the user to decipher. Images on the site have no value unless they are tagged with narrative text. If a field and its title appear on separate rows, the screen reader cannot link the two together.

Even with these few examples, you can understand how easy it is to make life hard for someone with poor vision. Here is the good news: It is easy to make good decisions about page design -- once you understand the Section 508 standards and have some tools in your back pocket.


Several useful tools are available for the developer to create and test a Section 508-compliant Web site:

  • A useful checklist for Section 508 compliance is available from the Web Accessibility In Mind Web site.
  • A Canadian special interest group, JA-SIG, offers an introductory slide show of programming techniques.
  • An expert in the field, Jim Thatcher, provides a well-written online tutorial concerning Web accessibility.
  • A handy tool for testing compliance is the Functional Accessibility Evaluator available on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Web site. You may test accessibility by simply providing the URL of a Web site (assuming it is public). The test follows the standards for best practices defined by the Illinois Center for Information Technology Accessibility (ICITA). For developers, the ICITA has a helpful add-in for the Mozilla Firefox browser. The tool provides a robust accessibility menu for the Firefox menu bar. It includes several validation checkers to diagnose HTML and accessibility issues.

The real test

Of course, the value of human usability testing is well known. My teams use it to great advantage when we test a new software release. I personally find it fascinating to sit with an end-user and watch as they try the new system and complete some work task I've given them. While they decipher the screens, navigate, and enter data, I am furiously writing notes about what I observe. I watch for the roadblocks they encounter and for the choices they make in completing a task. I try to evaluate how efficiently and completely they are able to finish the task I gave them. The experience always enlightens (and sometimes humbles) me.

When you develop a Web application compliant with Section 508, you should also conduct usability testing with someone who is visually impaired. At the university where I work, we are blessed with someone who is blind and quite savvy with screen readers. He recently helped us test accessibility for the alumni Web application I mentioned.

I sat with him for an hour or so as he completed several work tasks using the new application. Despite the project team's thorough effort in writing Section 508 compliant software, he discovered several places where the system needed improvements. We corrected those problems and confidently made the system available to a wide audience of alumni.

Next steps

It is not difficult to provide improved access for visually impaired visitors. By doing so, you broaden the audience for your products or services. Most importantly to a visually impaired person, he or she gains access to your corner of the Internet world. I hope the tools I've mentioned assist you in this endeavor.