One of the challenges in accessible web design is getting feedback from actual users. I know relatively few individuals with low-vision who regularly use screen readers. I know only a few people with handheld web devices – and certainly not enough to cover the entire range of possibilities in that area. This challenge is one of the reasons that web accessibility is so closely tied to web standards. Since most of us can’t test our work "in the field," we have to rely on our intuition, logic, and the fact that a careful adherence to standards will keep us from straying too far from the path.
There are a few places to go for valuable perspectives on these issues. First, and the most commonly used, for me, is the web design community. Interacting with other designers who are struggling with the same issues can provide valuable insights into potential problems which you yourself may not have considered. I belong to one major web forum, Cre8asite Forums, where discussions of standards and device compatibility have provided a lot of help. I’m also a member of the Guild of Accessible Web Designers, an organization committed to accessible web design. This highly focused group regularly considers the complexities of accessibility.
A second option is web accessibility testing. Disregarding the standard testing services for accessibility, Cynthia, WebXACT, and others, there are organizations such as Usability Exchange, a company which provides testing by actual disabled end users, giving you some of the best information you can get. The downside? It’s not free. And it never will be, I imagine. Still, for larger-budget projects it can be a hugely benefical step.
The third choice, is to read about the experiences of disabled users. It can be difficult to find this kind of information outside of lawsuits and news articles. These resources, though valuable, tend not to contain anything more than can be found in any number of online accessibility sources. Recently I’ve become aware of two blogs which can provide good insight: the American Foundation for the Blind and Blind Confidential, the personal blog of Chris Hofstater – a blind programmer heavily involved with the JAWS screen reader. The AFB blog is very general, but sometimes can provide an interesting link or story. Chris Hofstater’s blog, on the other hand, can sometimes provide fantastic insight into the experiences of the blind.
There’s nothing more valuable in accessible web design than getting a good sense for the experiences and frustrations of an actual user. If you can gain insight into the practical difficulties of a website, you’ve made the strongest step towards resolving the accessibility problem.