Accessible Oceans: Underwater Archaeology and Web AccessibilityJuly 18, 2006
What’s web accessibility? Do I need to make my new website accessible? What if I’m just getting started building web pages? All of these questions went through my mind over the last year as we continued to try and improve the MUA site. It seemed like a huge job. I had already built so much material that the prospect of going back and redoing it was not attractive. But as our goal was to reach as many people as possible and not dismiss a large segment of the population, we had to investigate what exactly that might involve. A review of several articles and a closer look at software I was already using demonstrated that this was not an insurmountable task. I’ll be the first to admit, however, this is an ongoing project for us and the site, in its current state, needs a lot of work but we believe it is well worth the effort and is important to discuss.
Accessibility in a nut shell means making websites available to people with disabilities. Some examples include people with vision impairments or blindness, those with physical limitations that prevent the use of keyboards and mice, and the hearing impaired. It also includes those experiencing the changes that come with aging or temporary conditions such as broken bones. How we code our sites can lead to significant obstacles for the disabled. For instance many sites use tables to layout their pages. This can play havoc with screen readers used by the blind since each tag is read out loud prior to revealing the content of each table cell. The Human Factors International website page entitled: How a blind person will “see” your Web page – audio comparison of inaccessible and accessible Web pages (http://www.humanfactors.com/downloads/chocolateaudio.asp) provides a dramatic demonstration of this problem.
Even color choices for fonts and backgrounds can present problems for those who are color blind when there is not enough contrast. Images used as links become useless if there is no description to indicate their purpose. Videos without captions or embedded text lose much of their value for the deaf (this is a current problem with the videos in our own children’s exhibit).
The World Wide Web Consortium (An international organization that works to promote web standards and protocols) launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php) that provides guidelines and techniques for making websites accessible. If nothing else underwater archaeological website developers should review this information especially the Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites page (http://www.w3.org/WAI/References/QuickTips/). Their ten quick fix items can make a real difference. In addition software such as Dreamweaver and Macromedia Flash makes it easy to code for accessibility. Dreamweaver for instance prompts the user to type in alternate text for images when they are inserted into the page. A moment of thought and typing can provide a meaningful description of an underwater photo that screen readers, a device often used by the blind, can then vocalize to the user.
The recent redesign of the MUA site was an attempt to incorporate many of these fixes. Our goal is to ensure all future material will be as accessible as possible give our current level of knowledge. As time allows we will also go back and retrofit older material. We have much to learn but believe we’re headed in the right direction.
By engaging in this discussion we hope to raise awareness of the issue and perhaps receive some helpful suggestions along the way. I’ve listed a few online accessibility articles at the end of this post for those who might be interested in learning more about this issue. As you read these you’ll see there are some differences in how far people feel they should go toward making sites more accessible. It is a subject of some debate but keep in mind that any effort toward accessibility is a good effort.
Introduction to Web Accessibility
How Do Disabled People Use Computers?
CSS in Action: Invisible Content Just for Screen Reader Users
10 Usability Principles to guide you through the Web Design Maze
How a blind person will “see” your Web page – audio comparison of inaccessible and accessible Web pages
I’d like to thank Professor Paula Petrik of George Mason University for introducing me to this topic and suggesting these articles and websites.