Note: I highly recommend reading the comments on this post. Jared Smith from WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) makes some very valuable comments on these issues which I’ve responded to.

In a word, options. Building an accessible website doesn’t mean building a visual experience which will work perfectly for all audience. It doesn’t mean writing content that everybody will be able to read equally. What it means is creating an experience where users can alter their experience as they choose so they can best experience the site. Everything from font size, to color contrast, to color choice, to accesskey assignments, to the content itself can be configurable.

Naturally, this is a best case scenario. There are problems inherent in making every aspect of a site configurable, as well. When the options themselves become overwhelming, you’re once again erecting a barrier to accessibility.

So you need to strike a balance. Studying your website’s user base is a good place to start — although you can’t entirely eliminate any specific audience by market research, you can make a healthy start at prioritizing. The first place which will usually be compromised is in writing content. This is the most specific targeting element: the only one which you can honestly be certain of. If you’re publishing an informational site about the engineering of widgets, you can be reasonably confident that your audience are reasonably knowledgeable about engineering and about widgets. You can write your content to the level required for widget engineers, although you may well want to include a glossary and some basic tutorials for the curious but less knowledgeable.

You can’t, however, have any idea whether your audience includes the dyslexic, the color blind, the mobility impaired, or the elderly. So compromising on issues other than content is a very poor decision.

Even if you’ve conscientiously prepared your site to be a solid middle ground for accessibility you can’t be at all confident that you’ve provided for every audience. Making alternate options available remains a high priority.

Providing more options for this site is something I’m working on: right now the site has a pretty high contrast. The bright white background can certainly be rather glaring. I also haven’t provided any means to choose access keys: a very worthwhile access aid when they aren’t set in advance. My style switcher is very limited: the low contrast version of the site is only usable within the non-blog portions of the site. (WordPress isn’t picking up the cookie…anybody know how to do that?).

Good accessibility is more than just a design issue or conformance to standards: it’s a matter of user choices. Building an accessible design needs to mean creating more than just one design: you need to build the default site design, which is all most users will ever see, but you should also consider alternate contrast versions, different font sizes, and alternate access methods.

Just some food for thought.

Relevant links: