During a recent educational seminar conducted by a friend and business leader, the dialogue turned to the importance of Web site accessibility. Incredulous, a seminar attendee inquired, "Why in the world would a blind person need a computer?" In the equally incredulous and reproachful commentary that followed, it occurred to me that there are probably a great many otherwise very bright and capable individuals who wonder the same thing.
If you haven't ever been exposed to someone who is blind and who makes efficient use of assistive technology to accomplish tasks, then how would you have the slightest idea what is possible? A few short minutes with a search engine can reveal a universe you might not have known existed. Sometimes, the truth is that we must admit that we don't even know what we don't know.
If you are a business owner, you might agree that the most rudimentary business model would be to sell as much as you can to as many as you can. With that in mind, it would make little sense to prohibit the entire population of Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Missouri from patronizing your business. Yet, that is analogous to what would happen if you overlook the benefits of making your Web site accessible to people who have vision loss.
According to the statistical snapshots taken by the National Center For Health Statistics, in the 2006 National Health Interview Survey (cdc.gov/nchs), approximately 21.2 million people in the U. S. have significant vision loss. In this case, the definition of vision loss is a broad one, but it includes individuals who have reported that they have trouble seeing even with glasses or contacts, as well as individuals who reported that they cannot see anything at all. The survey did not, however, include anyone under the age of 18, nor did it include individuals living in institutionalized housing, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Of the 21 plus million, a significant portion are regular computer users. About 8 million have a post-secondary education, and 14 million or so have a household income of over $20,000 per year. Approximately 9 million are baby boomers.
Computer users who are blind or who have low vision make use of assistive technology that enables their computer to talk to them. This is achieved either by using the accessibility features already built into the operating system, or by using a software program called a screen reader, or a combination. A screen reader is a program that translates on-screen text into speech. This speech can approximate a natural human voice, or it can sound more synthesized or "robotic." Whether a text-to-speech voice sounds more or less lifelike is a matter of personal preference, but the newest synthesized voices are fully digitized and sound very natural.
The simplest way to describe how a screen reader works is to say that the software "speaks" aloud everything that is happening on the screen that a sighted person could see. This includes, but is not limited to, pull-down menus, dialog boxes, error messages, icons on the desktop, window title bars, radial buttons, email messages and documents. Just about anything that can be seen is spoken aloud to a PC user who is blind. What the screen reader is actually "seeing" however, is not necessarily the text that appears on the computer monitor. The screen reader is in most cases making use of the underlying HTML or other programming language that is not visible to the end user.
While screen readers can read nearly every kind of Web site text you are likely to encounter, what a screen reader cannot do is identify or "read," a photograph or graphic. That is, unless the Web designer embeds alt tag descriptive text behind the graphic, where it is not visible to a sighted Web user.
If you want your Web site visitors to quickly locate the "buy it now" button, or the price of your merchandise, or a special feature, or your company phone number, it is a good idea to make that information available to a screen reader through liberal use of alt tag text. Tool tips can also be voiced aloud by a screen reader program, so widespread use of pop up hints or tool tips can be very helpful. If your site visitor is blind or has difficulty manipulating a mouse, the keyboard is used to navigate instead. Therefore, all functions on your Web site should be accessible by way of keyboard commands. Most screen reader software utilizes the tab key in place of the mouse. This key is used to jump from link to link, speaking aloud the name of the link as well as its purpose. As a blind computer user, I need to know if the link is a button, data entry field or edit box, or if it is a link that will take me to more information.
If you are an online business owner, you probably want to make the buying process for your customers simple and convenient. Even a modest level of accessibility can be achieved easily, by using "alt tags" throughout your Web site. These suggestions are a bare minimum you might consider as a starting place, however, there is a standard of compliance as set forth by the W3C. To view a comprehensive set of guidelines for Web accessibility, go to the W3C Web site. For an explanation in plain English, go to Wikipedia. If you would prefer a lively debate on Web accessibility as it pertains to usability and current programming platforms, you can find that, too.
America's largest demographic group, the baby boomers, are our society's economic powerhouse. They are America's greatest generation, as well as the greatest consumers of goods, services and information. That about covers what you sell online, doesn't it? As this aging demographic nears retirement, they will be accompanied by a full complement of age and disease related complications, among these, vision loss.
Think about ways in which to improve accessibility to your Web properties. In a shifting economic climate, can any business really afford to be exclusive? If your goal is to sell as much as you can to as many as you can, consider making the buying process as easy and as accessible, as possible. To understand the value of Web site accessibility is to acknowledge the value of all people, from all walks of life. Accommodating the needs of computer users with disabilities might enhance both your worldview and your bottom line.