Empowering Visually Impaired Users Online

Many of us take for granted the ability to navigate websites online, but have you ever wondered how a vision impaired person experiences the internet?

In the early days of the Internet when processors were slow and bandwidth a premium, websites were primarily text based.Thanks to screen readers, or software that reads text out loud, visually impaired users were able to find information and navigate sites. The past decade has ushered in a media-rich experience including stunning graphics and online videos. While this may be an exciting change for some users, it has greatly complicated the usability of these sites for visually impaired users since screen readers cannot interpret this media.

Visually impaired users “see” websites through text based descriptions presented audibly. To ensure the best possible experience, all content must be available through text.

Using Alt Attributes
The Alt Attribute (commonly mislabeled as the alt tag) for HTML and XHTML allows you to specify text based information for an image. Using this attribute on all images is the single most effective way to assist visually impaired users.

Don’t Just Describe the Image
You may be tempted to simply give a description of each image. However, it is important to consider the context of each image. If your image is intended to set a mood or convey a concept, ensure this is clear in the Alt attribute. This is especially important for images that direct a user’s actions. For example, if you used images for navigation purposes using the tag “Red, Square Button” may be descriptive, but it is of little value to the user.  Instead, the tag “Learn About Our Company” would be a better choice.

Skip Images that Only Add Visual Interest
You should also resist the urge to tag every image. With today’s media rich sites, many images are used simply for decorative purposes. It is not necessary to add descriptions for these. In fact, doing so may make your site more difficult to understand. If it doesn’t add value, don’t tag it. No one needs to know there is a “Gray and Blue Swirl” on the top left of your page.

Flash Animation
Flash content is widely used on numerous sites.  Many of the same principles apply to this media.  Adobe has incorporated several accessibility features into Flash for this purpose. They have provided a detailed guide on Flash development for the visually impaired.

The best method for ensuring your site is accessible to the visually impaired it to take it for a test drive. There are numerous open source screen readers available for you to download and test with. By experiencing your site exactly as your users do, you will understand how your site really functions for the visually impaired.