Commitment to accessible design has always been a challenge for a highly visual medium such as the web. Never-the-less, it is important to incorporate accessibility requirements into the design specifications of digital products. Considering accessibility needs can have important implications for the growing number of people in the UK who are blind and partially sighted, and rely on screen readers to access the web.
Apple Accessibility Logo, image from ETS Berkley.
Around two million people in the UK currently have some form of sight loss, according to the RNIB, and nearly 20% of cases are severe or irreversible. And these figures are set to rise, with over 2,250,000 people predicted to be suffering from some form of sight loss by 2020. In the VOD sector, this means that a growing part of the population are or will potentially be missing out on great content.
In this context, it’s increasingly important that websites and digital products are designed to meet the needs of a blind and partially sighted audience. While there are products on the market that aim to meet these needs, assistive technology standards are not always a priority in product development plans.
Screen readers (software applications that convert HTML text to speech) enable people with visual impairments to use computers and the web. However, complex or poorly written semantic markup of HTML sites makes many web pages difficult and awkward for screen readers to navigate. This can be a particular problem for VOD sites, where incorrect or limited ‘alt text’ can mean that the main content of the page - the video - is missed.
Google's ChromeVox is a screen reader extension for the Chrome browser.
A research report examining the official ISO standards for accessibility, written in 2008 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), found them to be largely inadequate. The authors of the research suggest that, rather than focusing on the problems encountered by users requiring accessibility support, there needs to be more of a focus on how people actually use the web.
Research, conducted into how users of screen readers access the web, provides a set of recommendations for accessible design, put forward by the authors, Mary Frances Theofanos and Janice (Ginny) Redish.
WebAIM also provides information on accessible design, including guidelines specifically for screen readers. WebAIM conduct regular screen reader user surveys, providing data on screen reader, device and system usage.
Considering the accessibility needs of users can have major implications for VOD sites. An understanding of how users of screen readers browse a website is essential to help create mechanisms for users discover great content.
Incorporating such guidelines into product specification does not mean that websites and apps have to compromise on visual design to be accessible. As Steve Krug argues in his usability guide Don’t Make Me Think, there are some important steps which can be taken to ensure that products meet the accessibility needs of users. Applying these guidelines to websites and apps can have a big impact on how people who rely on screen readers and other accessibility tools can use the web.