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O'Reilly Network Publishes an Article on Web Site Accessibility

Our friends at Camworld.com pointed out this article on The O'Reilly Network that talks about designing web sites for accessibility by the handicapped. We have an interest in this because we know a visually impared person who is very interested in using the Internet, and because we want our sites to be as accessible to all audiences as possible.

Read on for a summary of the article and some thoughts on what we've noticed in looking at our sites....

The article gives a number of interesting tips to web publishers looking for a quick gauge of how well they are doing in this regard:

  • View the site through a text-only browser like Lynx, make sure the content renders meaningfully, and that the site is still navigable.
  • Use the <em> (emphasis) tag if you mean to emphasize something, rather than <i> (italics) tag which only indicates a display style.
  • Use XHTML or HTML 4.01 to better separate form from content.
  • Provide long form descriptions of graphics, forms, and applets in separate HTML files. Don't depend on conveying the entire purpose of an object in the <alt> text.

The article also explains how to make image maps and tables more accessible, and provides background on U.S. Federal Government regulations on web site accessibility. Readers who are interested in these aspects of the story really need to read the full article.

With respect to our Slash-based sites, CTDATA.com and RCNJ.org, we looked at this issue six months to a year ago, realized that viewing them through Lynx was a reasonable approach, and found that our content came across pretty well.

It seems that thinking about rendering key web site content in RSS and VoiceXML makes all developers more aware of the issues that visually impared people would have with the presentation of most Web Sites. We view these XML content formats as important to expanding the audience for our web sites via content syndication. So, the fact that the technical requirements have the side-effect of improving site accessibility is a "win-win", as far as we are concerned.

The author's suggestion to substitute <em> (emphasis) for <i> (italics) confuses us a little. We don't find that italics provide enough visual emphasis for emphasized text. Our style uses bolded text for things like publication names and the names of people or organizations. We wouldn't switch in this case because we think that people reading a syndicated feed and sight-impared users don't lose much readability or context if they cannot detect the fact that certain words are bolded. On the other hand, visitors to our sites that are able to see definitely would lose some readability if the bolding was changed to italics through the use of the <em> tag.

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