So you are a web designer and you like your work. You have the drive to improve yourself so you do some reading about web design. You find out there are blind people surfing the web and after the initial giggle you start to realize this is actually serious business. You continue reading about screen reader software and html source order. After a while you are hooked and want to put these things in practice. But then what ...
The Initial Phase
Accessibility on the web is often targeted at catering for people with a visual disability. While this is only a limited portion of our work, it has become a solid stereotype to explain accessibility to the outside world. It took me a while to get the hang of it, to be honest, but the fact that it lead to purer design and better understanding of html helped me a lot to adapt to it.
I think the biggest problem for people like me (and many others in similar situations) is the lack of thorough understanding of the problems visually disabled people (and many other disabled people) are facing when they are surfing the web. Of course you can read up on it a little, but most of the time I simply reverted to what I presumed was common logic and pretended to be the blind guy myself. Needless to say, this is not an ideal method of working.
Even though you can try to predict how you would react when you were unable to see a web page with your own eyes, blind people are actually used to working their way through things without being able to see. It is hard to fully understand how this would be, how they face things and what methods they have developed to overcome their disabilities.
One of the things that got me doubting my way of working was the place of navigation in a html document. I read a lot about it, but even among screen reader users there didn't seem to be a real consensus of where to put it. Some said is was nicer to have in front of the content, some preferred to have if after the content. If you take the problem on rationally, both solutions have pros and cons, both can work equally well, according to the context.
Similar issues arose when dealing with alt text (though I'll leave those issues for an upcoming article). Bottom line is that it's not always clear what solution would be best. And in the end, there is no "blind person", only a group of people with the same disability who all have their own quirks and preferences, just like any other.
Of course you can buy or download your own screen reader, close your eyes for 5 hours straight and try to empathize with the people you're going through all this trouble for, but that still won't lead you to all the right answers.
What I'm missing is a place to gather information about problems like these on a first-hand basis. It struck me as weird that there is no central forum where visually disabled people, or people with other disabilities, gather to discuss the problems they are facing. And were people like us can go to gather information if we have questions or worries about the code we are writing. Maybe I just missed it, but I never came across a place like this.
If you know of a place like this on the net, feel free to tell me where to find it. If you feel the drive to start one up, please do so. I'm sure it would help a lot in creating a better understanding among web developers who are in no direct contact with the people they're actively trying to help.