The (In)accessible Web

aka Discriminating Against Individuality & Handicap

I. Web pages are not displayed on paper

Print media publishers must necessarily choose paper, leading, text and image sizes to meet their design goals. Text might be smaller in order to make a book use less paper, or a magazine to require less postage. It might be bigger, for an intended audience of people with limited vision, or in braille, for an audience of totally blind. But, whatever the choices are, once printed, they're immutable. Short of a copier enlarger/reducer, the reader has no power to make the physical media bigger or smaller, and similarly little power to alter other components of appearance. The web is considerably different.

Books, magazines, posters and newspapers have a physical existence. That reality ultimately requires physical delivery as a prerequisite to consumption, and thus various obstacles must be overcome, such as the need to create from and with trees, ink, machinery and petrochemicals, and transporting various places for people to discover, such as bookstores, sidewalks and libraries, all of which require people's time. All those steps between creator and consumer are missing from the web.

Access to the web is radically different. One need only be able to use some form of computer, or watch someone else use one, to reach its content. Lacking eyesight, one may still access that same content with technological aids that can speak its content. Indeed, the web is available to things we don't even think of as computers, such as televisions, PDAs, and cell phones. Even decades old teletype terminals and CRTs can access the web's content. All it takes is an internet connection, and some device to communicate the content to the user. The web offers magnitudes better accessibiliity than anything in print can hope to achieve.

Access is better still because of the nature of a computer, which can be customized according to the needs of its user. Sizes of screen objects can be made bigger or smaller, either at the OS level, or the UA level, in addition to the various available sizes of computer screens. Those who need things to be big in order to see can have them that way, and those who like more things on the screen simultaneously can make things smaller. Colors can be changed, just for the sake of change, or to increase or decrease contrast. Program windows can be sized anywhere between very tiny, and a whole screen at once, or tall and narrow, or wide and short. The computer is there for the benefit of its user, fully under his control. Or so it should be.

II. Author obstacles

Authors of web pages have the power to style their pages pretty much however they like, much like authors of print media. Most of them try to exercise that power to a precise degree, thinking they are in control, as if publishing to print.

What most fail to remain aware of, or even discover in the first place, is that their power is merely one of suggestion, and that the user of his work may override or ignore his suggestion. Most also forget about personal computer customizability, embracing some notion that most users don't do it, and so accomodating those putative few that do doesn't merit active consideration.

The overrides, as well as the suggestions themselves, and the customizability of the personal computer, can, and often do, interfere with accessibility. They need not, but in order for them not to, page authors need to account for their existence during construction. Most don't. Many don't understand the inherently fluid and adaptive nature of the web and the devices used to reach it. Some know about it, but can't be bothered to accommodate the perceived minority that has needs or desires that don't match their own, often claiming it requires extra work that the budget won't permit. There are those too who have the attitude that since it's their work, they're entitiled to do as they please, which of course they are, unless non-discriminatory accessibility is a design requirement.

What they typically please, or the bill-paying clients please, is to fit a large quantity of information into a particular size space. Generally this space is approximately most of the screen on a typical low quality computer display, one running settings of 800 pixel by 600 pixel resolution and 96 DPI, the defaults on a fresh Windows XP® installation or new Windows XP® computer. And, they want it always to look the same, regardless what customizations the visitor's computer may have in place to enhance space utilization or usability, or what UA or OS is used to communicate the contents. To do this, they style everything using pixels, typically selecting text sizes 43% or more smaller than the usual browser and OS installation defaults. Pixels make everything on the page fit reliably together when the same software and hardware used by the creator is used to communicate it to the visitor, and no customizations have been required or made by the visitor. The result can look almost like a master ready to go to the print shop.

Author styles are ignored by some web access devices, such as cell phones and screen readers, and by some UA software, such as that designed for use on character display devices instead of graphical screens. All those users are protected against author styles interfering with using those pages; but those using software that understands author styling can easily find text too tiny or color contrast too low, making the the content illegible and the page difficult or even impossible to use.

Pixel styled text can be inaccessible for more than one reason. One is that a user has poorer vision than the designer, and so requires text to be bigger than what the designer has deemed appropriate, either for reading comfort, or for it to be possible to read at all. As vision deterioration is common with increasing age, this very often affects users middle aged or older. They don't have vision bad enough to require expensive assistive technology. They simply need different settings than the typical web designer. What they don't need are web pages that won't respect their needs. The size of this group is substantial and growing, as most of the baby boom generation is now in or moving into it.

Another reason is that the user finds the quality of the standard low resolution settings unacceptable, and has raised those settings to improve the quality of her computing experience. Raising the resolution decreases the size of each logical pixel, so pixel sized text becomes smaller as resolution increases. With modern hardware, resolution four or more times the default is not uncommon. With resolution at X4, pixel text size is at 1/4, which can be quite small indeed, even when the display size is considerably larger than average. The size of this group also is substantial and growing, and poised to increase even more quickly with the advent of $100 8" 160 DPI screen laptops for school children.

The most pervasive reason pixel sized text can be inaccessible is that the most commonly used web browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer®, will not allow a user to use its text resizer widget to do its job on text so styled. When IE users who need text to be their default size or larger or even just larger than the author's specification encounter it, they are stymied and often confused that the resizer widget has no effect. Browser and OS adjustments for everything else all work, but not the one for web page text! Note that IE's text resizer is equally broken for text sized in points and other size absolute units.

100%
56%
Pixel sizing is not the only power CSS gives authors to give visitors difficulty reading. Text sizing can be done by reference to the users' browser defaults, and this they've been doing with increasing abandon as older browsers with poor CSS support are being replaced with more evolved browsers. Instead of setting absolute sizes in pixels, they define text size as a percentage of the user default, typically in the 56%-64% range. They know that most modern browsers use the same default size initially. Most, being the eagle-eyed artists that they are, and more comfortable than Joe Average with things small, find that size too big, and they presume that since they do, users who don't know how to change theirs, or even that they can, would agree, and thus style using a percentage that results in a size of their own liking.

Another CSS power commonly wielded that increases difficulty is color, or rather, relative lack thereof. A current author vogue is substituting varying shades of a single or related colors for highly visible, high contrast colors, like black on white or white on black. The result is often contrast that falls short of a standard, or for the colorblind, background and foreground colors that are indistinguishable. A long standing usability enhancing paradigm is different colors for visited and unvisited links. It helps users distinguish where they've been from where they haven't, but another current author vogue is eliminating the distinction between them.

Page construction using HTML frames is probably the oldest major impediment to accessibility. It breaks the fundamental user model of the web page by making link click results unpredictable, making printing difficult or impossible, breaking creation and sharing of bookmarks, and leaving the address bar as indicator of your web location all but useless.

Scripting support in all modern web browsers gives authors considerable power, both positive and negative. Scripts can open resource hogging new windows, too often for the purpose of focusing advertising; hide the status bar, preventing a user from knowing where a link will take her; replace statusbar content, typically with an incessant distracting scrolling message; disable the context menu, a standard browser feature many users find more convenient than the main menu; change portions of page content or the entire page, often serving different content based on what the script thinks the visitor's OS or UA is, or even denying access to the page entirely if it thinks the user isn't using a "supported" browser; open links, often to the exclusion of the normal link open mechanism, preventing visitors without script support or with script support purposely disabled from opening the link at all; and redefine the result of using the browser's back button, the web's second-most used navigation feature, preventing easy return to the previously viewed page.

Large pages or images or many images handicap a huge audience, largely made up of the poor, but hardly limited thereto, doing so in either of two unrelated ways. First, it lengthens page loading and response times through their slow internet connections. Alternatively, or in addition, the large resource demand slows the older, less efficient hardware and/or software they use. Large add-in files that require plug-ins like Flash, Shockwave, Adobe Reader and Java to provide glitzy substitutes for normal content have a similar impact. These add-ins frequently require newer versions than users have installed, imposing more unnecessary hindrance. Browser and proxy caches can help cushion this pain, but often authors defeat them with nocache directives or pointless refreshes. Testing user patience this way is unfriendly, and often results in premature departure, which, on retailing pages at least, is clearly antithetical to the interest of the page owners.

III. User handicaps

We are all familiar with traditional handicaps, such as poverty, blindness, deafness, dyslexia, epilepsy, and missing body parts. The web exposes human and other limitations not so easily recognized as handicap, but that nevertheless often make the web more difficult than it needs to be.

Among these are presbyopia, a too common malady accompanying advancing age. Presbyopia is not blindness, which advanced assistive technology can overcome, but simply a difficulty that simple technology like larger screens and large print easily handle. It is indeed the web itself as an alternative to print that provides a solution for this large group. But it can't do that when web authors build pages where everything is arbitrarily tiny.

Deteriorating motor skills accompanying advancing age or disease have a similar impact and solution. Small mouse movements can be difficult when arthritis or parkinson's disease make hand movements jerky or difficult. Large targets, easily incorporated by usability conscious web page authors, reduce or eliminate this needless handicap.

Short attention spans, common among the aging population, but acutely common among children, make dealing with complex tasks difficult. Busy web pages with many links and small text tax attention focus and the decision making process for these people; so for them, simple and uncluttered is best.

Old hardware and software make things slow: slow browser startup, slow downloading, slow rendering, slow plug-in load times, slow scrolling, slow scripts. Old operating systems can make software upgrades painful or impossible. Even when newer software is compatible with older operating systems and hardware, added feature bloat can slow things further, or users may chose not to upgrade in order to avoid the cost of relearning or of eradicating whatever freespace remains on their smaller old hard disks.

IV. Defense mechanisms

Web browsers provide users various defenses against pixel perfect but difficult web pages. Some defenses are better than others. As above noted, IE's text resizer is broken, but all other modern web browsers have resizers that do make text larger, and sometimes all objects larger. Whether larger text will actually help on these pages depends on contrast and other page design characteristics, but commonly the forced larger text won't fit in the alloted space, and either overlaps other objects, or disappears behind, or hides them. When this happens, users often blame the browser, when in reality the page design is antithetical to web's inherent adaptability.

Other defenses provided by modern browsers include forced minimum text size, user styles, and author style disabling. Again, the aged IE provides poorer defense, first by offering no minimum text size, then by limiting the extent of styles that can be disabled, and finally by obfuscating the disabling mechanism deep within its menu system. User styles are akin to a preemptive strike, but in order to use them the user must first learn how CSS works, then edit configuration files to implement them, and usually restart the browser before they can take effect. Few users discover that this hidden power exists, and those that do find it severely limited for technical reasons that few other than highly experienced professional web authors understand. All the latest browsers provide a means to simply turn author styles off, which should leave the page totally unstyled, yet perfectly usable. Unfortunately, misused or malformed (X)HTML can still make pages difficult to use.

V. Conclusion

Setting primary content text size to other than medium puts the author in the unenviable position of disagreeing with his readers about what type sizes they find best. Trying to substitute author judgment for readers’ is presumptuous, at best.

An oft repeated justification by web artists is that "the customer wants it that way". It's an easy trap to fall into, thinking the ostensible customer, the one paying the construction bill, is right, so whatever he wants, he's entitled to get. The reality is that the author and the page owner are a team, and the page visitors are the real customers. It's up to the web professional as team member to make sure the page owner understands this, and reconcile what the owner thinks he wants with what the professional knows is needed to attract and/or retain site visitors, to make sure access is not restricted to visitors of normal vision using an unmodified PC equipped with the most popular operating system and web browser.

The reason personal computer settings are adjustable is so that users can enjoy having their personal computers meet their own personal needs. Many users do precisely this; however large or small is their number matters not, only that any do, and all are entitled to. Among those that do are apparently not very many web authors. Most presume most users don't exercise their entitlement, and so don't exercise their own, so as to see as they presume most users see. If they did adjust their browsers to their personal preferences before creating their page styles, not only they would enjoy the results they prefer, but so would presumably all sighted visitors. This major strength of the web is, unfortunately, much too infrequently enjoyed.

Still not done yet

VI. Related Reading

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