bestkungfu weblog

Accessibility: what not to do

Filed in: accessibility, CSUN2004, Web, Thu, Mar 18 2004 21:25 PT

Jim Thatcher, lead author of Glasshaus’ “Constructing Accessible Web Sites”, presented case studies of sites that have technically passed the Section 508 standards, but in a completely unusable way for users with disabilities.

Long long descriptions. Showed the Department of Veterans Affairs site’s code, which has descriptions attached that basically explain what was already in the document, and may as well not have existed. Spacer GIFs that say “one pixel image, used for spacing.” Do not do this. He fixed the document, reducing the VA page’s reading time by 77%.

Skip-navigation links (see the nav of my page for an example) are good, in moderation. CNN has one, which skips hundreds of links. Jim’s site has two levels. ITTATC has four levels, which is getting a little burdensome. But HP’s site, archived in 2002, he says, was the worst example: it had eleven skip links, each with “you have just skipped…” after the fact. Super-complicated. And you could skip the skip links. Half the words on the HP page were skip links.

The worst of all is a current site:, the National Archives and Records Administration. It’s a simple enough page, design-wise. But they do so many things wrong: images with tiny print for the nav, and the worst select menu ever: it has an onchange event attached, so interacting with the keyboard causes the page to reload as soon as you hit the down arrow. Do not do this.

Then, you roll over the tiny text images, and an image of explanatory text appears to the left. Totally unreadable by assistive technoogy, natch. There’s an image in the noscript area of the document that’s one by one pixel, doesn’t have any alt on it, and doesn’t appear to have a reason to exist. The alt text of another spacer informs users of screen readers of the contortions they have to go through to use the site. They take roughly four hours to get through, and tout how great it is that users can’t interact with their navigation. It also announces “This table is used for layout” in the summary attributes of their tables. Do not do this. Leave an empty summary if it’s for layout. He can cut 80% of the bad stuff out of this site for users.

The basic message of this is not to overload users of screen readers with remedial site usage details that they don’t really need. People who are just coding to the letter of Section 508 may have their hearts in the right place, but need to use their head, and need to read about what they don’t need to do, as much as what they do. Thatcher suggests hiring accessibility experts who, for example, know what the CSUN conference is, even if they’ve never been. (This ends up being shorthand for: if you don’t know any users with disabilities, or how assistive technology works, or the rules of applied Web accessibility, you are not a Web accessibility expert. Perhaps impolite, but otherwise accurate, in my opinion.)

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