Web Accessibility Isn’t About “Better” – It’s About Equality

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Guest blog by David Ashleydale, Web Accessibility Strategist

We all know images that represent some kind of content need to have appropriate ALT text assigned to them. It’s usually better to not use images at all for this purpose, but it still happens.

I came across a situation the other day that involved a data table being used to compare products. The rows represented the various products and the columns represented different features. The data cells either had a big dot in them or nothing — the assumption was that the dot meant that the feature in that column was present for the product in that row. If there was nothing in the cell then that product didn’t have that feature.

The designers asked me what ALT text should be used for those dots. They were still trying to decide between using images for the dots or using a large ASCII dot, but either way they wanted to know how those dots should be presented to screen reader users. Their first thought was to give them alt=”Yes”.

But here’s where I started thinking a little philosophically.

Is there anything visual about a dot that makes it easier to understand by a screen reader user than hearing the word “dot”? I don’t think so. A dot is a symbol, whether you see a dot or hear the word “dot”. When they tried putting a large ASCII dot into the table cells, I listened to it with JAWS and it said “dot”. I was asked if there was anything wrong with that and I said, “Actually, no, it is a dot and it was announced as a dot.”

But the team felt unsure about this. They asked, “But wouldn’t it be better to hear the word ‘Yes’ if you were blind and using a screen reader?” I responded, “Would it be better for a sighted person to see the word ‘Yes’ than to see a dot?”

The goal of web accessibility is not to make the Internet a better place for people with disabilities than for those without — it’s to make the experiences as equivalent as possible. I didn’t want them to use a dot visually and to use the word “Yes” as hidden or alt text. If “Yes” is better than “dot” for some people, it’s better for everyone.

Another nice thing about having the experience be “dot” for everyone is that we can all talk about it with each other. If a sighted person is speaking to a non-sighted person about this table, it could get confusing if one of them sees a dot and the other hears a “Yes”.

Admittedly, this isn’t all that compelling of an example — I don’t think it would really cause that many issues if some people see a dot and others hear a “Yes”. But this thought process needs to happen in the more complex cases. I often encounter people that aren’t used to thinking this way. They see a dot in the table and it doesn’t take them long to figure out that it means the feature is present in that product. But they aren’t so sure that a person who is blind could do the same by hearing the word “dot” in the table cells. I explain to them that the exact same reasoning is being used in both cases.

It’s tempting to try to keep adding new, better words and functionalities when shoring up an online experience for accessibility. In fact, it’s great. But don’t just do it because you think that people with disabilities need a better, different experience. Take your new solutions and use them to shore up the experience for everyone.

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