Misunderstanding Accessible Design

August 15, 2006

Topics: Accessibility.

I ran across an interesting article entitled CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is Worthless, by Mike Stenhouse of Content with Style. I don’t read this blog/publication very regularly, but this particular article really caught my attention.

Whenever someone is designing an accessible site, they’re pretty likely to design it exclusively using CSS for layout. Is this because CSS is an accessible technology? Hell, no! CSS is just as susceptible to inaccessibility as the next design technology. This is because it is a design tool, not the content itself.

The first step to creating accessible web content is to write accessible HTML (HyperText Markup Language). If you’ve organized your HTML semantically, using your block elements correctly, not littering the page with extra <span> or <div> tags and using your <table> tags for tabular data, then you’ve accomplished the greatest part to building an accessible website.

When you’re using any design tool, CSS being the most common, all you can do is try to prevent your design from getting in the way of the accessibility in your underlying semantic code. For some users, it makes no difference at all what you do with your CSS – the blind aren’t listening to your style. However, a low vision user desperately needs you to have been respectful with your design!

This is, practically speaking, the exact same discussion as my last post, but applied to a specific technology. Using CSS isn’t superior or “accessible” in any particular sense unless the underlying HTML has been well-structured.

Something to keep in mind when looking for an accessible web designer – the fact that they are a CSS wizard doesn’t mean that they know how to create an accessible site. Similarly, somebody who builds completely standards-based strict XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)) isn’t necessarily creating an accessible site. It’s easy to follow the rules without acknowledging the principles of accessibility in both situations.

The only test for an accessible website which is of any ultimate significance is whether a disabled user can navigate it successfully and to their satisfaction.

9 Comments on “Misunderstanding Accessible Design”

  1. This is a great article. I agree with the other commenter; CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is very important in designing a web page. While it’s just a design tool, it works much like the petals of a flower: bringing color to a site’s page and attracting visitors to stop by and see what it has to offer.

  2. Great article, it’s a fact that CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is not useless at all. To that guy there is a simple exercise, open firefox, go to a website, go to view > Page Style > Select No Style. Probably that tells how a page without CSS is like a man without clothes.

  3. Thanks, Marc. In fact, there are bookmarking icons; but they aren’t made obvious. If you visit the link “Social bookmark this page,” you’ll have a whole array of options for social bookmarking.

  4. Some really good info on this blog. And I fully agree with the author regards accessibilty, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) or XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)). Should consider adding a bookmarking icon to this blog.

  5. I enjoy your articles. I will visit your blog again.


  6. Yeah, that’s why I didn’t go and title my post the same way! I think that Mike Stenhouse was speaking tongue-in-cheek when he wrote that post title, however. Controversy breeds attention, after all.

  7. I guess I have to agree. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is nothing more than a means of making an accessible X/HTML website look pretty. That’s it. A few divs may be added (which are generic containers so it’s all good), and maybe a few spans, which have zero meaning, even the white space between two words has more meaning than the lowly span.

    I wouldn’t say CSS is worthless though in that it is a means of preventing developers from creating barriers to access by embedding presentational data into an otherwise accessible site. Some methods of styling and laying out a site, as you know, can destroy its accessibility.

    If not for CSS we’d be offering some really plain Jane site or laying them with tables. Hat’s off to CSS.

  8. Thanks for your comments (and your commendation!) I noted that you disagreed with me on one point – which I just wanted to get to, really quickly.

    I would disagree with you in that there is no way to make good html work on current web browsers without implementing CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to allow you to have content first, etc.

    That’s true. However, I’m not talking about design; that’s one of my points. Design is the process of creating potential barriers to access. Semantic and correct HTML (HyperText Markup Language) will work flawlessly on all modern browsers – but it won’t look very interesting. It’s CSS which we’ll use to add interest and color to the design, and also to make the content appear to be in the right place, when it’s actually been placed lower or higher in sequence. CSS only controls the visual aspects of the page.

  9. Great blog! I’ve added a link to your blog on Blog of the Day under the category of Design. To view the feature of your blog, please visit http://blogoftheday.org/page/111928

    Please note that my site uses semantic xhtml and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) with content first and there are icons under the category headings for re-sizing the font to make it larger for sight impaired viewers.