Hello! Thanks everyone for coming! I am Hidde.
Hello! Thanks everyone for coming! I am Hidde.
I work for the W3C, at the Web Accessibility Initiative. Among other things, we make standards for accessibility that are adopted by governments and organisations worldwide and have lots of guidance about those standards.
I specialise specifically in the accessibility of tools that make web content: content management systems like WordPress, Drupal and Typo3, site creators like Wix and Squarespace, WYSWIYG editors… anything that creates web content needs to have accessibility considered. There is a spec for that too… if you want more info on that, talk to me later. Oh, and I also brought some WAI stickers.
But lets get to it: 6 ways to make your site more accessible. Before I joined the W3C, I used to work primarily as a front-end developer, so a lot of these things are from a front-end development perspective and can get technical at times, please bear with me.
My first tip is about exposing names.
This is specifically important for users of assistive technologies, tools that sit in between people and their screens, to make sure they can experience in a way that works for them.
Examples: alternate pointing devices braille bars screenreaders screen magnifiers
If we want to optimise for AT, we need to think about our markup. Let’s say someone goes to your website. Just after they type in the URL and press enter, the browser is going to receive HTML or markup, and it will turn that into trees.
The one the developers here are probably familiar with is the DOM tree, it turns markup into objects, your tags into elements, that scripts can interact with.
But there’s a second tree, super relevant to our interests. That’s the Accessibility Tree. It contains specifically the accessibility information, in roughly these three groups: roles, names, properties.
The way I like to explain this is… the accessibility tree is how your page gets exposed to assistive tech. Let me explain.
Basically, what AT do is convey to their users what’s happening on their screen. In order to do that, they need to know what’s going on on the screen. For this, they rely on platform-specific accessibility APIs, that basically know what everything is on your platform. the only thing they don’t know is what happens in your browser, as they’ve never seen your website. This is where the accessibility tree comes in.
These days, accessibility trees are available in all the major browsers.
Ok, so I said we would look at naming.
What if in your family, you had named your first child Alice? And your second one too? And your third, and the fourth? If ALL your kids are named Alice, you are guaranteed to run into lots of practical problems. If the head teacher from their school calls because Alice has missed class, you’ll not know who you need to talk to.
Yet we do this on the web a lot. Lots of websites feature news articles with a Read More link under each of them. This is tricky for a user of assistive tech. Screen readers, for instance, have a feature that lets people browse by link, which is commonly used. If a page has four links that are called Read More, there is no way to distinguish them, which is a real problem, because it blocks users of assistive tech from knowing where they’re going.
So, basically… the <a> tag names a link. How this works is… usually it will take whatever content is in between the opening and closing tag as the name. But there are exceptions, for instance if you have an image, it might take the alt attribute of that image. Or with aria-label you can override it all together. To get more specifics, check out the Accessible Names and Descriptions Computation specification, which has the heuristics specified.
This is a real problem. WebAIM, a non profit from the US, looked at the top one million websites recently, and found that almost a quarter of them has ambiguous link texts like click here and read more.
So the tip here is: use unique link text that makes sense out of context. Or to be more specific, ensure that something unique computes as the accessible name.
There are many other HTML elements that end up being a name for something in the accessibility tree. For instance, the label element names a form field.
Quoting again from WebAIM, 60% of form inputs weren’t properly labelled. So let’s look what makes a properly labeled field.
If there’s an input with just in front of it a DIV tag, that visually names the input. It works for people without disabilities, because they see the word name and the input and understand they’ll need to put in a name. But the big issue is, the name isn’t programmatically associated with the input. So in the accessibility tree, it isn’t going to have that name.
The way to do this properly is to use a LABEL tag and ensure that its for attribute is the same as the id attribute of the input.
Other elements that name something on your page are CAPTION and LEGEND.
A CAPTION labels a table and a LEGEND labels a group of form fields.
Say you’re coding a page that has financial results for the last three years, you want to make sure that they have unique names, so that someone with a screenreader can easily figure out if they are looking at the 2019 financial results or the 2018 financial results.
Similarly, for form fields, a legend helps you name a group of fields.
I think by now you won’t be surprised if I say that markup is really important for web accessibility. The next tip is to make good choices about which markup you use.
One of the most common accessibility mistakes is confusing A and BUTTON tags.
The big difference is that a link goes somewhere and a button does something. A quick check you can do when you’re building something, is… does this thing have a destination?
If not, if your href is empty, you should probably use a button element. It’s important to get this right, because there are many differences between how A and BUTTON work.
Let’s say you’re building a save button, that’s probably a button element.
By using the button tag, you get for free that people can tab to it, it can be activated with a keyboard, it gets announced by screenreaders as a button and it gets the correct cursor too.
Sadly I don’t have time do discuss all the HTML elements today, I could go on for hours, but I’d recommend to check the spec. Particularly the developers version that WHATWG offer is useful, because it has all the technical stuff for browsers taken out, and has just the information for developers. All HTML elements are described, it says clearly what they are for, and has examples of how to use them “the right way”. I use this a lot, because frankly, it’s not easy to remember what the right way is for all these elements, so documentation helps.
Let’s look at structure now, another pillar of accessible user interfaces.
One way to provide structure is to think about the title of each page, and by title I mean the title element that sits in the header of your document.
I was recently reminded of this again by accessibility expert and screenreader user Léonie Watson, who recorded a video for Smashing Magazine in which she showed how she browsers the web.
Quote: [The <title>] is still the first guarantee or first confirmation that you’ve ended up on the page that you intended to reach. — Léonie Watson, accessibility expert and screenreader user
Headings are also super helpful when it comes to structure. They are like a tables of contents for assistive tech.
This is because screenreaders often come with shortcuts to get to the headings of a page. Screenreaders CAN read out a full web page to the users, but listening to all webpages always costs a lot of time. Therefoer they come with keyboard shortcuts to access just the headings. This is an example of VoiceOver on the Mac, used on the Wikipedia page of assistive technology.
A very general tip is to turn off your CSS and then verify if your page still makes sense. Without CSS there’s just structure, or lack of it, so it is a good way to find things that need improvement.
Ok, the fourth way to make your site more accessible.
It is to specify language. Jules already mentioned it this morning. Set a language for the document, so that search engines but also assistive tech know what the language is. This works not just on the document, but also on individual elements.
For example if you have a couple of words or a whole paragraph in a different language, you can set a lang attribute locally.
An attribute I only learned about recently is the hreflang attribute. It lets you specify the language of the destination of a link. So if you’re linking to a translation, specify what language that page is in.
And of course you can also combine this with a lang attribute, if your link text is also in a different language itself.
The firth point is on text alternatives.
A friend of mine, who is blind, told me that when she goes to a supermarket, she needs to bring her partner or ask a member of staff in order to find products, discover prices, figure out ingredients, et cetera. Using the website of her supermarket, she can just access everything herself and do her own shopping. This is awesome, truly inspiring, and a big reason that this works is this:
The web is mostly text
Text is awesome, because you can select it, copy paste is, make it larger, throw it into Google Translate, et cetera et cetera.
My point is: text lets us have accessibility automatically.
So it’s up to use to make sure that we have text, or at least alternatives for text.
We probably all know about ALT attributes for images. For example this image says 30% OFF your next purchase, so ensure that this text is reflected in the ALT.
Code: <img src=”promo.png” alt=”30% off your next purchase” />
Some of you may think… with the rise of AI and machine learning, can’t alt attributes be generated automatically? Yes they can! But that isn’t necessarily good. One: modern screenreaders aren’t near having these kinds of capabilities. Google and Microsoft are investing in AI for accessibility, and Google announced at CSUN they will have a feature in Chrome that will let you get missing alt texts. But what about the privacy implications?
My last tip for you today is to test with a keyboard.
Keyboard usage is something that happens between what we call ‘the interactive elements’. Keyboard users don’t tab between individual letters, words or sentences, it happens between the things that they can interact with: links, buttons, form fields, and also the new details element in HTML.
People who don’t use a mouse, use focus styles to see where they are.
When there’s a bit of text with two links of it, the way to know which link you’re about to click is to look at where your mouse pointer is: the link that it is hovering above is the one you’re about to click.
That requires a mouse and for people who don’t have a mouse, an alternative is needed. This is where focus styles come in, they show where the keyboard currently is, so that people know which element they’re about to click. This is great.
Some people say that focus styles are ugly. So are streetlights, but they are extremely helpful when I walk home in the dark, as they let me see where I am. Focus styles do this on the web for keyboard users.
As Laura Carvajal beautifully said at Fronteers Conference last year: you wouldn’t steal their cursor! And you totally can, with cursor:none in CSS you can turn off the cursor for any element in HTML. But wouldn’t you agree that is a terrible thing to do? It takes away an affordance that people rely on. Just like outline:none does, so this is really important to avoid and remove from any stylesheet you may have in your project.
So the main tip here, to summarise: try if you can get to all your links, buttons and forms with a keyboard. If that works, you’ve come a long way in making your site work for users who use keyboards or other input methods.
In summary, my six tips: name things so that they show up right in the accessibility tree and people with Assistive Technologies are able to distinguish between them; write good markup and check the spec if you’re not sure; have a good structure that even works without CSS; declare languages; provide text alternatives for images, audio and video, and make your site usable with a keyboard.
Thanks for listening! For any questions, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @hdv or find these slides on Notist https://talks.hiddedevries.nl