Web Accessibility: Making your Pages Friendly to People with Disabilities
By Robin Nobles

Did you know that nearly 20 percent of all Web users have some form of disability?

"Making your site accessible for all is a matter of courtesy, is good business practice, and is not difficult," explains Robert Roberts, a professional SEO who owns the SEO Toolbox (http://www.seotoolbox.com).

In fact, Roberts believes that Web accessibility issues are so important that he's been having monthly chat sessions on the subject for students at the Academy of Web Specialist (http://www.onlinewebtraining.com/courses.html). He's also created a special section of his Web site that's devoted to accessibility issues (http://www.seotoolbox.com/htmlchat/accessibility.html).

Roberts states that disabilities can be anything from "simple" color blindness to more severe disabilities.

The Use of Alt Text to Solve Accessibility Issues

"Let's start with image alt tags. You can use the alt tag to your advantage, not just for SEO purposes. The alt description tells those users with assistive technologies what the image is about.

"There is the issue of lots of clear images meant to be used as spacers in layouts. Should you use an alt tag for every one of those? Yes, in a sense, you use what's called the Null Alt, meaning an empty alt tag, like this: alt="". Notice that there is no space between the quotes, which means that assistive devices will bypass the image and not try to explain it. But if you don't use it, assistive devices will show a blank where the image would be or cause other display issues.

"The alt tag for navigation images is critical. Actually, you should use text navigation wherever possible, as good SEO's, but there are times when the layout uses buttons, which brings up another issue - that of navigation preceding content."

Solving the Problem of Navigation Preceding Content

Roberts continues, "When a person using an assistive device opens a Web page, he or she is usually greeted by lots of navigation before getting to the content. Furthermore, an assistive device like a screen reader will read ALL of the navigation every single time. One solution is to include a "skip navigation" link that allows the person to jump to the page content. This can be in the form of a tiny hidden clear image linked to an anchor tag.

"If you would like to see an example, take a look at the source code for any page at SEO Toolbox (http://www.seotoolbox.com). The logo at the top of the page is linked to the menu, because the menu markup is actually at the bottom of the HTML code. You would be able to use this strategy with any assistive device or in a text browser like Lynx."

Why Accessibility Issues Are So Important These Days

"One of the reasons all of this is so important," says Roberts, "is because of a lawsuit in progress that looks like it may get to the Supreme Court. A blind man in Florida is suing Southwest Airlines because he is unable to complete normal transactions on their Web site."

By means of explanation, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides provisions on the accessibility of public accommodations to the disabled, and this is the Act that is being referenced in the case.

The plaintiffs in the case claim that Congress wrote the ADA so broadly that the Internet is covered, meaning that it 'applies to Internet Web sites just as it does to brick-and-mortar facilities like movie theaters and department stores.'

The defendants (Southwest Airlines and American Airlines) have taken the position that Congress never meant to include the Internet, because cyberspace was in its infancy at the time the law was written. So, the argument is whether a Web site is a 'public accommodation' under Title III of the ADA.

"But," continues Roberts, "there is a precedent that will surely influence the outcome. In Australia, a similar suit was brought a couple of years ago by a blind person against the Olympic Committee because he could not get tickets online. The suit resulted in a win for him: a $20,000 damage settlement.

"What all this means is that sooner or later, any Internet site offering goods and services will have to comply with accessibility standards."

In Roberts' accessibility section (http://www.seotoolbox.com/htmlchat/accessibility.html), he's placed a link to the lawsuit, if you'd like to learn more.

About the Author

Robin Nobles, Director of Training, Academy of Web Specialist (http://www.academywebspecialists.com) has trained several thousand people in her online search engine marketing courses (http://www.onlinewebtraining.com) and is the content provider for (GRSeo) Search Engine Optimizer software (http://www.se-optimizer.com). She also teaches 4-day hands-on search engine marketing workshops in locations across the globe with Search Engine Workshops (http://www.searchengineworkshops.com).