Designing a Site for the Visually Impaired

The niche market of the web has continually changed over the past 15 years. Most recently, it has shifted from the Hispanic market to the 50+ age group. That shift ties in directly to designing for the visually impaired as most of us have had our vision deteriorate with age.

The Web Accessibility Initiative called WAI is only 13 years old. In terms of technology and movements it is still in an infant stage. As technology advances, so does the ability to create a more robust web that everyone can access. Screen readers are becoming much more advanced and thus they are able to interprete screens much simpler as well as more advanced languages such as Flash and Silverlight.

The main takeaway when designing to the visually impaired is to follow some basic rules when doing so:

1. understand the perception of the content as it is outputted from the computer
2. plan for the interaction with content inputs to the computer (mouse clicks, typing, etc)
3. understand content design, complexity, and the structure of your content.
– 2 layers of content is about as deep as you want to go for the visually impaired.

On a more technical level, designers should pay attention to color palettes as a large percentage of the population cannot detect certain colors.

Developers should keep the structure as close to W3C compliance as possible. What that means is in your HTML structure, use tags as much as possible. ( “h1” tags, “li” tags, “div” tags, etc) Doing so allows screen readers to distinguish headers from content and lists. Also, always add alternate tags in your images so screen readers can give context to the images to the visually impaired.

Dynamic websites were the first use case for this initiative.  Some solutions when using AJAX is providing hidden links to independent pages that are only seen or recognized by screen readers and never seen by a user.

For the account team, it is estimated that developing for accessibility is only about a 5% increase in cost.  Do it right the first time as trying to retro-fit it will essentially cost you 100% more.

The WAI is also looking into geolocation and how it can improve the web experience for people with disabilities.

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