If you can read this, who showed you how?

A friend of mine sent me a tactful e-mail the other day offering some basic design critique about this site. She pointed out that someone with impaired vision might have difficulty reading the menu items in the site’s sidebar because of the relatively low contrast between the background color and the menu font.

“That’s ridiculous,” I thought to myself. “I’ve followed the Web accessibility debate for years — I’ve built this entire site with CSS, so that it would be a simple matter for a vision-impaired person to override my settings with his own style sheet.” Then I stepped back for a moment. How would a user know to do this? The average Web user knows nothing of “CSS” or “style sheets,” and they shouldn’t have to. Why should it be different for someone with poor eyesight? I knew there was plenty of advice out there for how to build an accessible Web site, but when I tried to find some basic instructions for how to override a style sheet, I had a hard time finding any advice directed at users, to show them how to access all this content that has been designed for them.

CSS has long been recommended as a way to make Web sites more accessible because all of the design elements on the Web page are controlled by a single file, called a “style sheet.” The idea is that a vision impaired user could create her own style sheet and set her browser to override the site’s styles and make any Web site easier to read. Sounds great, but I spent hours developing the style sheet for this site, and I was only able to do that because I have years of experience building Web sites. Is this what we’re asking vision impaired users to do, just to be able to surf the Web?

Now, I do realize that my site could be even more accessible, and one thing I’m planning to do when I have the time is to create an alternate design that readers can easily switch to — but no single design is going to meet every visitor’s needs.

Visitors — especially those with vision impairments — need to know how to customize their browsers to make a Web site like this more readable. Perhaps my Googling skills are not what they should be, but I’ve only found a single page directed at users (compared to dozens for designers), and while I appreciate the fact that this resource is available, I don’t like the fact that this site automatically resizes my browser window, and that it doesn’t offer step-by-step instructions. Maybe a reader can help me out and point me to additional resources, but it seems like the Web could use a simple site that showed readers, step-by-step, how to create their own CSS and use it to override the settings of a Web site they’d like to read. Better yet, the site would offer free style sheets for download, and show readers how to install them.

Otherwise, all this talk about making Web sites more accessible might as well be falling on deaf ears.

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