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Don't Disable Your Site for Handicapped Users

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Are you designing web sites that are accessible to disabled users? If not, you're overlooking a powerful market segment of millions of searchers and potential buyers.

Many search marketers meet the prospect of being forced to design accessible web sites with cries of unfairness or indifference. But this is a shortsighted view. Assistive technology is increasingly used to help the more than 1.3 million legally blind Americans and 10 million visually impaired users successfully navigate the web.

Disabled users are growing in number, especially as assistive technology continues to improve and become more affordable. The problem is, many borderline search optimization techniques cause pages to appear as gibberish or can even set off alarm bells when viewed using assistive technology. If you're not aware of how assistive technologies work, you may be inadvertently doing the online equivalent of parking in a handicapped space—and not even realize you're being a jerk.

Most disabled people would never describe themselves as limited or restricted, as they are simply living with what they know. Yet society has a way of not considering the needs or attempting to understanding those with physical or mental disabilities.

My father has been physically disabled for the past 20 years. I grew up watching people park in handicapped spaces, without considering those who really needed them. And recently, seeing his resourcefulness in using the internet, I've seen firsthand the challenges he and other disabled people have using the web. My father uses the internet for his online business and multiple other ventures. For him and other disabled users, the internet is freedom.

Vision-impaired users are able to access information and use the internet just as regular users do, by using Braille enabled devices or vision enhancement technology to read newspapers, articles, blogs, forums and research. For the blind or physically disabled user, the freedom of the internet also allows shopping from home. It frees them from the time and hassle of physically going to a store and managing packages, or simply being dependant on someone else for a ride.

Assistive technology can help by giving users an alternate means of viewing online information. These technologies include screen readers, Braille displays, user-defined style sheets, and magnification. All of these allow alternate means of viewing web page information.

However, many amateurish, misinformed and thoughtless search engine optimization tactics interfere with the user experience for these technologies. Using assistive technologies, disabled users are unable to understand these poorly crafted web pages. Essentially, disabled users are told to "stay away" because they are not able to view the information as a "normal" person may. These tactics may be hidden from regular users, but often they're painfully visible using assistive technologies.

Tactics that can go awry with assistive technology have at their root a search engine optimization method that creates inherent problems: keyword stuffing. Keyword stuffing involves an attempt to gain rankings by forcing as many keywords as possible in a page, using elements such as the title attribute, alt attributes, link titles and more. Users interacting with the web using assistive technology are forced to listen or view these long strings of keywords with no context, sense or understanding of any structure.

These tactics are uncovered as soon as a screen reader loads a page and the title attribute is read to the user. Most disabled users will be forgiving with a stuffed title, as many web pages either overdo it or provide nothing at all. However, screen readers and text browsers also show "invisible" text such as white text on a white background, stuffed div tags full of keywords positioned at the top of the page and stuffed noscript tags. By stuffing these elements, a screen reader or Braille display will show all of these to the user and displace the normal page display in a typical web browser.

Visually impaired users combat poorly designed pages by listing all links on a page. Screen readers provide users a list of links and anchor text so that they can find alternatives for the information they need. However, listing links can be an exercise in futility on some "optimized" web pages. Lists of keyword-stuffed anchor text links, "invisible" links, and hidden links to doorway pages are all exposed to disabled users, furthering their frustration with a site.

Search engine optimization needs to grow up and move beyond juvenile tactics to inflate rankings. True optimization creates websites that are accessible and valuable to users on all platforms, browsers and user-agents. Ensuring that a web site is able to communicate to all users, regardless of disability and access is a critical part of marketing a web presence.

Otherwise, you may as well hang out a sign that says "handicapped not welcome."

Want to see some of these assistive technologies in action yourself? Freedom Scientific sells many assistive devices, and offers a screen reader demo of a program called JAWS. The Lynx Text browser displays web pages in much the same way as a Braille output device.

For more information on designing web sites that are accessible to all users, see the W3C's Web Accessibility Checklist and its list of
Specialized and Adaptive browsers.

Matt Bailey is web marketing director for the Karcher Group.

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