People with disabilities can and do use the Web. Sometimes they do so with no modifications at all. Other times they use the same software functions anybody else could use, like making text bigger in a browser window.
Sometimes, though, disabled people use additional (or adaptive) technology to make their computer and browsers accessible.
People with vision impairments who aren’t totally blind may use screen magnifiers. They’re software (not a magnifying glass or anything physical) that blows up the text and graphics onscreen to a size they can see. Magnifiers can also isolate individual words or sentences for easier reading.
What they need: Well-laid-out sites, with good underlying code, and real text (not pictures of text). It all has to work when blown up to huge sizes.
Blind or almost-blind people can use screen readers – software that reads out loud the text on a Web page. Screen readers do not dumbly read every word from the top of the screen to the bottom; you can control what you want to read and how fast. Most people listen to a screen reader’s synthesized voice, but some people may also use Braille displays, which continuously pop up a line or two of Braille dots. Most people in this group don’t use a mouse.
What they need: Layout isn’t very important for this group. What’s most important is really high-quality code underlying the page so you can choose to read, say, just headings or just lists of items, or read a text replacement for an image.
People with some physical disabilities – like arm amputees or quadriplegics – use a whole range of hardware and software items to move the cursor around a screen and enter text. Some of this technology is quite efficient, but some other technologies are slow and painstaking. Most people in this group don’t use a mouse.
What they need: Yet again, the big need here is really good underlying code, but the purpose is slightly different – it has to be possible to step through all the blocks of text, links, headings, lists, images, and so on just via keyboard. (Screen-reader users also need the same thing.)
There are other disability groups, like people with dyslexia and other cognitive disabilities and colourblind people, but this is just a sample list.
There are several international standards for Web accessibility. You don’t have to guess or make it up as you go along; there are rules you can follow. The main set of standards is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (published by the W3C WAI), but some countries (and some sectors, like governments) have their own standards.
Web developers can follow accessibility guidelines, or just become educated on what it means to create an accessible Web site and work from there. (A site isn’t necessarily inaccessible because it doesn’t comply with guidelines.) It helps hugely to test a site with actual people with disabilities to make sure what works in theory works in practice.
I used to work in Web accessibility, but I don’t really do that anymore. (I still keep up with the topic, and as this project attests, sometimes I actually do work in the field.) I wrote the book Building Accessible Websites (New Riders, 2002), which is a bit outdated but is still useful as a reference work. My interest and work in accessibility go back about 30 years.
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