Accessible to whom?

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

In my last blog I discussed the case against Target. It generated a lively discussion with a number of readers. One of these comments was so serious that I decided I should start a new thread. The comment was “It sounds ugly to say, but how disabled does a person have to be before designing a website to accommodate them is considered unreasonable and a web designer is not legally responsible to accommodate them? Blind? Deaf? Limbless? What if they are mentally retarded?”.


The question should really be ‘vision impaired’ and the website should be able to support users with vision impairments. But for this blog I will stick to people who are registered blind and use a screen reader to help them interact with the website.

The person cannot see images or video and there is no way that either can be fully described, however it is perfectly possible for the site to enable the user to:

  • Ignore eye-candy.
  • Be given a brief description of an image where it is conveys important information.
  • Provide an audio-description of a video if the sound track is insufficient.

Now let me give an example of a web site that is unacceptable. I recently booked theatre tickets for a show that includes an audio-description. It would therefore seem reasonable for a person with a vision impairment to book tickets as well. In fact, the site worked very well enabling a screen-reader user to find the show and the date, choose the seats and start the booking process, including name, address and credit card details. Unfortunately it fell down at the very last hurdle. For some reason the web designer had decided that the ‘submit’ button should be an image that could only be reached by a mouse click (a user who is blind could not see the button nor move the mouse to hover over it). So having done all the hard work the blind user could not submit the ticket request. The site is not only inaccessible but profoundly irritating.


Until recently most websites were accessible to the deaf community. The written word and images are accessible. With the increased use of audio, sites are becoming less accessible. Site owners need to think about the use of audio:

  • Some of it is just ear candy e.g. background music on an intro page and can be ignored.
  • Some of it is nice to have, e.g. a welcome from the CEO, but does not contain any information, at least nothing that is not written elsewhere, a pointer to the written equivalent is all that is needed.
  • Some of it is important, e.g. The text that goes with a presentation, and in this case sub-titles (known as captioning in the web world) are required.

Having said that text is accessible it must be remembered that for many people who are deaf sign language is the preferred means of communication. A site that wants to attract and be friendly to this community may wish to consider adding a signing avatar, examples of which are now available.


A better description would be people with muscular skeletal disorders. Depending on the specific disability the input devices include special variants of a mouse, on-screen keyboards, single switches, text prediction, voice activation etc. The design of the pages should allow interaction:

  • Without a mouse.
  • With the minimum number of keystrokes (on screen keyboards can take longer to use than a standard keyboard) .
  • Enable voice activation of controls and form input.

To better understand the importance of this consider a person who has been leading an active life and using computing and the web as a regular part of their business and private life. Now consider the same person after a spinal injury that means they now have no use of their limbs. They should be able to carry on doing everything that could do before on the computer—some of it may take longer and require more effort and concentration but nothing should be inaccessible.

Mentally retarded

This is a particularly non-PC term for people with cognitive disabilities. I was recently discussing this area and was introduced to the term ‘spikey cognitive abilities’ to express the idea that people have different levels of cognitive ability: reasoning, spatial awareness, memory etc.

Not all content on a site will be accessible to all users; for example a web site devoted to quantum mechanics does not need to be accessible to someone with a reading age of eight. However, the language, layout and navigation of a site should be as clear as possible to make it accessible to anyone who has an interest in the content and functionality of the site.

Multiple disabilities

The comment did not include the issue of people with multiple disabilities. Even here there are people able to use accessible web sites including blind-quadriplegics (using voice input and output) and deaf-blind users using a keyboard and Braille output.

So, in conclusion, I go back to my original answer ‘Yes, ja, oui, igen’ which brings up the further issue of internationalisation but that is a topic for another day.