How to ensure your website is accessible and usable

Having an accessible website is not just a nicety, but a must have. Although there are still issues with inconsistent display of content across browsers, matters are much better than they have been in the past. This means that there is no excuse not to bear in mind accessibility when creating and updating your site.

Here are some accessibility tips to bear in mind whilst creating your site:

Navigation You should resist the temptation to use images or Flash for links on your site, and rather use text based links. This helps with accessibility, search engine spidering and ensures that navigation links can be traversed using the tab key as well as the mouse. The ability to use the keyboard to move around the site is an important accessibility requirement to ensure those who cannot use a mouse for a variety of reasons are not disadvantaged by your site.

Alt Tags Ensure all images have alt tags - or alternative text - attached to them. This is a key accessibility requirement, to ensure that those who cannot view images, or choose to browse without images, can view all of your site without disadvantage. Alt tags should be descriptive and relevant to each image, rather than generic or used as a place to stuff keywords that are irrelevant to the image. Keep them sort and to the point - if the image is of a man parachuting, then label it as 'man parachuting'. There is no need to prefix with the word 'image:' as many text to speech browsers will add this automatically, thus the listener will here 'image image' if you also insert the word image!

Flash When it comes to accessibility, one of the biggest barriers can be Flash. Flash must therefore only be used sparingly and only to add nice to have touches rather than important content. As well as being slow to load, Flash is often stripped out by firewalls or switched off in the web browser. The accessibility of Flash content is very poor as it is impossible for a search engine to know what a Flash banner is displaying. Therefore use Flash with caution.

Colours Be sensible with your colour scheme! Ensure that you use colours that go well together and are easy on the eye. Therefore don't use colours that clash, are too similar or too light to be read easily on screen. There are tools you can use to see how your colour scheme will look to those with various types of colour blindness - well worth checking out.

Font sizing Ensure that if possible you do not fix the font size, but rather allow site visitors to adjust font size as per their requirements - either making it larger and easier to read, or perhaps even smaller. Therefore don't set absolute pixel sizing in your style declarations.

In summary be considerate for your whole audience, who will also be using a variety of browsers and monitors to view your site. It is therefore well worth running your site through a text only browser such as Lynx to see how it displays there, and also run your code through a code validator to ensure that any mistakes are ironed out before you go live.

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