A large subset of web designers are drawing attention to the accessibility of websites these days. In simple terms, web accessibility means that anyone can access a site with any browser. This means that an accessible site supports not only the latest versions of IE or Mozilla, but it works in older, less feature-packed browsers as well.
There is a certain type of browser that seems to be creating a niche for itself as the most troublesome when creating accessible sites. This browser is known as a “screen reader”. And it’s probably not that screen readers are difficult to design for but rather that they’re just not all that available.
You see, screen readers are typically found only on the computers of those who have visual disabilities. As the name implies, a screen reader reads the contents of the screen to the user. A blind or visually impaired user would not be able to use a computer without such software.
And the companies that make the screen readers aren’t helping matters. JAWS, the most popular screen reader, is priced rather prohibitively. Sure, if a screen reader was the only means by which I could “view” a website, I wouldn’t mind paying $1000. But for those of us who simply want to make our sites accessible to users of the screen reading software, this price is exorbitant. Heck, even the 60-day trial version costs $40.
A while back, a petition was started online to get lower-priced versions of JAWS for web designers. This petition drew all kinds of criticism, from the constructive to the outright negative. But it seemed that most agreed that this petition was not the right solution. Coding a site to the quirks of one particular piece of software would be a step backwards.
So what should we do now? Well, I think that we, as web designers, should continue to build sites with semantic markup. Producing valid code is certainly a step in the right direction. The screen readers should be able to read a standards-based markup. And if they can’t, the market will force them to acquire the capability soon.
But if you can’t afford to have a single user turned away from your site, there is still a decent recourse–hiding text from visual browsers. Jon Hicks posted a nice snippet of CSS today that will allow you to position a DIV outside of the browser window. This makes it invisible to the browsers but not to screen readers. The top three screen readers took a DIV hidden with this method and read it perfectly.
In the end, I think that sticking to the WCAG will be the ultimate solution for creating fully accessible sites. If both the designers and the browser developers can stick to this standard, the web will be forever accessible.