Enabling People to Work on Computers

Photo by Steinar Engeland

Computers. Wow, have they changed my life! Thanks to computers, I’m making my niche in a career that lets me develop a skill with minimal barriers. And I’m not the only one. Others are able to overcome their own individual barriers thanks to various types of technological devices.

But what are some barriers that many people face when using computers to connect or work? And how can we remove those barriers? Read on as I share what I learned in Week 2 of the Digital Accessibility MOOC offered by the University of Southampton.

Access via Input and Output

When designing applications we must not presume that input will only be via keyboard and mouse or that output will just be to a screen. We must allow for the fact that users may require alternative input and output mechanisms.

There are many of us who are accustomed to using the keyboard and/or mouse during our interaction with a desktop or laptop. But not everyone interacts with computers that way. Likewise, not all people use screens and speakers for output, though many people do.

Here are examples of alternative means of computer input and output:

  • Input: speech recognition, eye-gaze technology, switch access via hand, foot, mouth, eyelid, or skin)
  • Output: speech output, braille output

Layers of Access

My focus on accessibility has been purely web development. However, this course reminded me that there are a lot of things going on when a user accesses a website. Not only are they encountering an online document (content), but rather they are using a browser to get to the desired content (application), and a using a system on the computer that supports that browser (operating system).

So many things to think about:

  • Device
  • OS
  • Applications
  • Content

And my list doesn’t even include the Internet connection nor the environment that the person is surrounded by while accessing the Internet!

Document and Content Access

Document accessibility, most recently, has become a big deal to me. What good is dropping a bunch of useful content on the web if it’s not usable?

Mostly, I’m talking about Word documents, PDFs, and Excel spreadsheets. Though Web pages (sometimes considered documents, too) can be developed with many of the same principles, I will not be touching on that until a later post.

Key principles to consider when striving to develop accessible documents and content:

  • create structure and hierarchy that make sense (title, headings, list); keep presentation separate from style
  • give alternatives when providing images, audio, and video
  • identify language, descriptive metadata, and link anchors with meaningful text

These are only a few ideas to ponder. Learn more about the principles of document accessibility in more detail.

Automated Accessibility Checking Tools

Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Slides

  • built in Accessibility Checker tool (Microsoft Office)


More on Alternative Text

Images must have text alternatives that describe the information, reflect the role, specify the function, indicate the target of the link or, in the case of charts, convey the data represented by the images. Description shouldn’t be redundant of text.

There are three types of images:

  • decorative: for layout or visual aesthetics; leave alt text empty
  • functional: represent the function of the link (i.e. alt=”Print” or alt=”Company Home Page”)
  • informative: graphically represents concepts and information, such as:
    • Pictures, photos and illustrations
    • Images of text
    • Complex images such as graphs and diagrams
    • Image maps

Final Thoughts

This was a short week in the MOOC, but I found several tips to be helpful. The principles that make a document accessible and clarification of proper use of alternative text were the most helpful tips for me.

Keep Reading

If you haven’t already seen these, check out W3C’s and Adobe’s resources on making content more accessible:


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