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Design with vision

On Monday 26th March, The Guardian carried an eight page supplement, paid for by the RNIB, to accompany their regular Media pages. Its purpose was to encourage the production of information that is accessible to people with a visual impairment: not just those who have no sight at all but the far greater number whose eyesight is not up to reading the print sizes and colours often produced by designers who aren’t aware of these issues. I’d like to point you at the web version of the article, but I cannot find it. There is a page on the RNIB site but it’s not even a summary of the contents.

What the article does add to what’s been published before, including on the accessibility page on our own website, is the growing body of legislation including the new equality duty for the public sector which came into force on 4 December last year. This affects 45,000 public bodies across Great Britain. And it’s clear, as we have been saying for some time, that a web site provides a service. There is no point, for example, in upgrading your theatre to provide disabled access if blind people cannot access your online booking service to get tickets.

It’s a common misconception that blind people cannot use the internet because they cannot see the screen. There are two answers to this: the first is that many people have impared vision rather than being completely blind. People who can read large print books can also use properly designed websites, which are ones that allow the user to adjust the size of the text and which have clear contrast. If this has been done, just hold the Ctrl key and press the + key to make the text larger. It’s that easy with both Firefox and Internet Explorer 7.

Blind people can use assistive technology, which can read the contents of a web page aloud. It sounds a bit like having Stephen Hawking come along and read the web page to you. (Though to be fair, many modern voice synthesisers sound rather more natural than Hawking, who I understand has decided not to upgrade because his accent is now so familiar.) But care is needed, particularly with images, which need a succinct alternative text description for the voice browser to read out.

The Guardian‘s article pointed up some unexpected benefits: Legal and General found that their new accessible website had 50% more pages in the search engines and they doubled the number of visitors receiving quotes. So it seems everybody likes accessible websites.

We try to write accessible websites and have had some success: in 2005 we won a Visionary Design Award for Anne Fine’s website., and these days we try to make all new sites accessible. It’s not that difficult particularly if you are aware of the issues. These days we use style sheets to define the overall look of a site. Although they take a little more work to set up at the outset, it soon pays off because coding the rest of the site becomes a lot easier.

I could go on. And on. But dinner is on the table so I will leave that for another day.

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