How to Choose Web Design Tools for Accessibility

Accessibility in web design means that there are no barriers between the content of your Web site and the user of your Web site. This does not apply only to users who fall into the "handicapped" category, but to all users. Understanding the accessibility issue will help you pick the right tools when designing (or redesigning) your Web site.

As the Web enters our daily lives in more and more ways each week, there are more and more reasons to be sure your content is accessible. Situations becoming common for Web users include interacting with Web sites using pagers, phones, in automobiles, or in other cases where hearing might be difficult, reading might be impossible, clicking with a pointer such as a mouse might not be an option, there might be no keyboard or there might be a very small screen.

If the tools used to create a sites are designed with accessibility in mind, there will be built-in ways for designers to prepare for such situations as a normal part of the design process. What tools are we talking about?

The HTML editors specifically designed to produce Web content, of course. But there are a number of other ways to create Web content. Many tools offer the option of saving material in a Web format: word processing software, presentation software, graphics software, video and sound multimedia tools, layout tools for Cascading Style Sheets, and tools that generate content on-the-fly from databases.

How much the tools help or hinder Web authors' attempts at creating accessible design can vary greatly from tool to tool.

What do you want in a tool?

The Web standards group, W3C, have some recommendations. The W3C Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines state that, "the authoring tool be accessible to authors regardless of disability, that it generate accessible content by default, and that it support and encourage the author in creating accessible content."

What are the specifics you want from a tool that "supports and encourages" accessiblility in Web design? The biggie is that the authoring tool checks for or asks the author to include equivalent alternative information such as text equivalents, captions, and auditory descriptions at appropriate times. This should be done right up front whenever an object such as an image is added to a document, and not hidden as an extra step behind a "Properties" or "Advanced Options" button. The tool should insist that the author create this alternate content. The tool should provide up front opportunities to add summary information to tables, long descriptions of sound or video content, titles to links, tab order preferences and other accessiblity requirements. The tool should allow the author to separate the creation of the content from the styling of the content – in other words, it should support the use of Cascading Style Sheets.

Can you edit the HTML directly?

If your tool doesn't do what you want, will it let you manually add it? Some tools balk at such "errors" and refuse to continue working. Others change your additions to something they do recognize. Be sure there is an easy way to add or remove markup manually.

Many companies allow you to download a product and try it for 30 days before you buy. If possible, check the accessiblity-friendliness of any software you are thinking of using this way.

So, where is this great tool?

Sadly, right now there is no off-the-shelf web design tool that addresses every one of these needs. To their credit, many software makers are updating tools to add accessibility options.

W3C Guidelines

Since I wrote this article, the W3C has stepped up with Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. The guidelines give information about making the design tool itself accessible, and what the design tool should do to help the designer create accessible sites. Check it out.