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The case-against a text-only Web

You might think creating a text-only version of your site makes it more inclusive, but the opposite might be true.

In an attempt to make their sites accessible to all, more and more Web sites are now offering text-only versions of their sites. With the huge number of inaccessible Web sites out there, any attempt to make a Website accessible to one and all is highly commendable.

But is text-only the way forward? The W3C have this to say about alternative accessible sites: “And if all else fails… If, after best efforts, you cannot create an accessible page, provide a link to an alternative page.”

Hmmm… so according to the W3C a separate accessible site is OK, but they do use some pretty strong language to suggest that this should be avoided wherever possible. They’re probably right too, given the disadvantages of going down the text-only route.

The most ironic thing about text-only versions is that often they don’t even offer full accessibility. This could be for a number of reasons, two of the most common being:

— Non-descriptive link text: Visually impaired Internet users can browse Web pages by tabbing from one link to the next. Link text such as ‘click here’ and ‘more’, which may feature in a text-only version, won’t make any sense to them when doing this.

— Inaccessible forms: For optimal accessibility, prompt text should be assigned to its form item, using the label for attribute. To check for this, a flashing cursor should appear in each form box when the text next to it is clicked.

One of the myths of Web accessibility is that accessibility is only about blind and disabled users. Accessibility is actually about everyone being able to access your Website, both disabled and non-disabled, regardless of the browsing technology they’re using.

For example, users accessing your Website through WebTV, mobile phones, and PDAs, which have limited support for large images, Flash and JavaScript, may not be able to access your site. Don’t underestimate the importance of this: in 2008 alone an estimated 58 million PDAs will be sold (source: eTForecast) and one third of the world’s population will own a wireless device (source: ClickZ).

Some users may only need to make small adjustments to your site in order to be able to effectively use it. For example, a site visitor who needs to slightly resize the text on your site may have to use the text-only version if you don’t allow this is the main version. This person then won’t be exposed to your online image and branding, which you’ve undoubtedly spent so long developing.

Creating a separate accessible version can obviously represents an extremely large time and money investment. This can be offset if the site is database-driven, although there’s still a time investment involved in setting up this alternative version–time that could have instead been spent making the primary site accessible to all.

Some text-only versions offer far less information and/or functionality than the primary version of the site. Manchester United’s accessible version is a prime example of this: the primary Website features over 100 choices in the navigation menu; the accessible version just eight. For a busy Webmaster, having to make updates to two versions of the same Website can be a huge pain.

If the Website is 100% database driven then the separate text-only version will automatically be updated with the primary version of the site. Although database-driven sites are commonplace on the Web, it is very rare that every single page is drawn from the database. As such, even with a database-driven site separate versions can often be left behind.

The final point, and perhaps the most important. One of the most famous quotes about accessibility was made by Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the Internet: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Creating a separate version for Web users with special needs can be seen as just one more way of them being marginalized from everyday society. Having a separate accessible version has been famously likened to a restaurant providing a side door down a back alley for disabled customers, because the main entrance has a couple of stairs leading in to the restaurant.

The idea of the Internet is that it’s an inclusive medium, which everyone should be able to use and access. Visually impaired individuals particularly can now access a virtually unlimited source of information in a way that would never have been possible.

There are therefore so many reasons as to why a separate text-only version isn’t a good idea. Additionally, there are such a huge number of benefits to having an accessible Website that there’s no excuse for not trying to make your main Website accessible to everyone.

Trenton Moss is president of Webcredible, a Web usability and accessibility consultancy based in London, UK.

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