Content authoring drives Web accessibility

I recently reviewed a Web application for Section 508 compliance. Section 508 is a part of U.S. Rehabilitation Act which requires that information technology must be accessible to users with disabilities. For example, Web sites must be accessible to people who are visually impaired. This can be achieved by providing alternative keyboard navigation and ensuring that these people can use assistive technology such as screen readers and Braille displays. Compliance with the act is necessary if you want to sell software to U.S. government agencies.

BrailleSo I compared the product against a checklist of standards. The standards are quite logical: provide ALT attributes for non-text assets, don't rely on color alone to convey information, identify form elements, and so on. I found some shortcomings and suggested how to fix them.

What surprised me, however, was how common these problems still are. Let's consider image ALT attributes. Very few Web pages are hand-coded today. Content is authored in content management systems, blogging tools, Word processors and WYSIWYG design tools, and then converted into HTML for publishing on the Web. In many cases authors never see the HTML code, which means they don't have a chance to define ALT attributes either. So why don't authoring tools fill in the attribute automatically?

As I was writing this post I uploaded an image of Braille text into Blogger. I had named the image "braille.jpg". Imagine if Blogger would have read my file name, recognized it as a word, and used it in the ALT attribute. Instead it left the attribute empty. (I defined it manually in the HTML.)

High-level content authoring tools already save users a lot of time and effort. By making sure that they also produce Section 508 compliant code we could take big strides in providing an accessible Web experience.