Web Accessibility Tool Bars

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2005 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

When developing or reviewing a website there is a whole variety of tests that I need to carry out. The first is to check that the HTML is valid and to do this I would go to The W3C Markup Validation Service; then I need to check the CSS at The W3C CSS Validation Service; only then would I try some accessibility checks using Cynthia Says or a similar tool. Having looked at these tests I may need to look at the source, followed by checking what the page looks like with CSS switched off. Running this set of checks is time consuming and requires cutting and pasting URL from one system to another.

I have just discovered there is an easier way, which is to install a toolbar that has all these tests and more on it. Now a check of the CSS is only a click on the toolbar away. There are several toolbars to choose from and the good news is they are all free (you may decide to make a donation – but not to Bill Gates!):

  • If you use IE then Microsoft has recently introduced a beta version of a toolbar, Internet Explorer Developer Toolbar Beta, which has some good features but as a beta it is still a bit flaky; it has obviously been influenced by the Firefox tool.
  • If you are not keen on betas then try Vision Australia’s toolbar at Web Accessibility Toolbar. Vision Australia is a provider of services to visually impaired people in Australia.

Interestingly, each of the toolbars has some unique and useful functions:

  • The Microsoft beta has a DOM (Document Object Model) viewer which helps to quickly understand the structure of a page.
  • The Firefox version has an extremely useful function in the miscellaneous section, which, with one click, linearizes the page; this shows the order that a screen reader will read the page. Most web pages have all the navigation and advertising first, and only at the end do you get to the content of the page; this can be extremely frustrating and may well turn a visually impaired user away from your site.
  • Vision Australia includes a colour section. The page can be viewed in grey scales which can show up a lack of contrast between foreground and background. It also has a colour contrast analyser – pick a foreground and a background colour and it will tell you if the difference in colour or brightness is sufficient.

All of these are useful and should be part of the developer’s tool kit. However, this testing only works on the page that the developer is working on at the time, so there is still a need for checking the conformance to standards, usability and accessibility of whole websites. For this I would recommend looking at tools from companies such as WatchFire, SiteMorse and HiSoftware.

The automated testing tools come with their own warnings, because they cannot automate all accessibility checks, and this is where there is a real niche for specialist consultancy firms. There are many of these firms around the world but I will mention just two in London who have assisted with my research: System Concepts and Webcredible.