Accessible Sites Matter
I see a number of sites that take the attitude that "if you want to use our site, you have to use the software we like." In my opinion, for most sites, that is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Obviously, you want a site to be modern and attractive, but you want it to still be usable with any fairly modern browser. For this reason, I think one should be very careful about requiring Flash to view the site. (I am just using one example.) Likewise, one should be careful about requiring a particular version of some software. One should be careful about requiring scripting support to be turned on, or images, or a particular plugin or activeX control.
In general, you want your site to reach the largest possible audience with your message and product. So you should want your site to be accessible with any modern browser. Furthermore, some site visitors might be using an Internet appliance (remember WebTV?), a PDA, or a mobile telephone. Some might be using a text-only browser (such as lynx, links, elinks), or a screen reader (or other accessibility software, I'm only lightly acquainted with it). So you do not only want the 88% of weekday users that use IE, you want close to 100% of users to be able to use your site, and that means supporting other browsers as well. Among more technically-inclined users, IE is closer to 57% of the market, so if you want those people to visit, support what they use.
If you have video on your site, make sure that Quicktime qt/qt4/mp4 is one of the
formats available, because your users can play most of them on any
operating system and almost any video player they are using. Do not
use those horrid and buggy scripts that try to detect the media
player. They do not work with all browsers or operating systems, even
when the system has the software to play the video. Provide two or
three formats, with links for each format. Let the user's system
decide whether they need to install software in order to view it. Unless the videos are the whole point of your site, make sure that the site is still usable without the video.
If you have audio on your site, make sure that .ogg and .mp3 formats are supported, because most players can play one or both of these formats. Again, unless the audio is the whole point of your site, make sure that the site is still usable without the audio.
For most of your content, people should be able to access it even without a graphical browser. It is hard to believe, but it has been reported that someone was arrested for using a text-mode browser to donate to a relief aid site. What kind of Webmaster or system administrator does not know Lynx? So you should really try to avoid requiring any specific set of software, including a specific operating system or browser or plugin, for people using your site. What if that had been some kind of adaptive software to enable the disabled to use the site?
I was working one place and found that an internal Web application was not written for use by anyone who did not use one specific browser or whose screen resolution was less than 1024×768. We had users who had changed it to 800×600 so that they could see, but then could not move forward in the application, because the forward button was not shown on the screen. Another employee needed screen magnification software and a much larger monitor. We took the monitor from a manager, but could not get approval to purchase the software, so he brought in his own.
You should also know that a major U.S. retailer has been sued because its site is not accessible to the disabled. The case is setting precedent. It is likely that it will soon be legally required for your site to be accessible to the disabled. Unless your company just happens to like losing lawsuits, your best bet is to start now.
Hopefully you are now convinced about the need for broader support for the various ways that users may interact with your site. So let's talk about some ways to improve this.
Mark Pilgrim's Dive Into Accessibility site is a book that he has written online. The author discusses multiple disabilities and the ways that they affect people using Web sites. He then discusses ways that a site can be made to work with most adaptive software. If you design or develop for the Web, you need to read this book. It is available on the site for download in HTML or PDF file formats.
The W3C has created the Web Accessibility Initiative to help specify ways to make sites accessible to disabled people. It is not too much more difficult to make a compliant (and therefore more accessible) site than it is to make it non-compliant. Your site will still be attractive, if you choose to make it so.
Bobby is a tool to test sites to see if they meet accessibility guidelines. Typically, the report will list major and minor points where improvement is possible. A number of them should be pretty easily done. It is not so difficult to make sites a little easier to use.
U.S. government agencies have a set of legal requirements for accessibility, known as Section 508. If you are working for such an agency, your sites should become compliant as quickly as possible.
This does not really focus on Web design, but software in general. IBM gave its "Project Missouri" to the Free Standards Group. It will now be known as IAccessible2. This is a set of APIs that will enable programmers to make their software accessible more easily. This is designed to work on Windows, Linux, and other platforms; and with office suites and other software on those platforms. I would suggest checking up on this from time to time. It could affect the way that software and maybe even Web sites are written.
Finally, one of the best things is to have a diverse group of people that test your sites before, during, and after you deploy them. Blind, deaf, native English-speaking, non-native English-speaking, foreign speaking, and from different age groups, ethnic backgrounds, religious traditions, and genders. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by finding out how things are perceived by different people before they blow up in your face.
About me: I am fully sighted, hearing, with full use of my limbs. However, I read Mark Pilgrim's blog regularly, so that is where I first started thinking about these issues. I read the book linked above when we were working on an internal site at work. Seeing the ways that sites became unusable if a user had a different browser or screen resolution has also informed my thinking. And finally, being a Linux, PC-BSD, Firefox, Opera, and K-Meleon user (depending on the computer I am using, I may or may not have Flash, Java, or other plug-ins installed), it drives me nuts to go to a site that has–for example–news video and have it block me because I am not using IE on Windows at the time.