Ten accessibility blunders of the big players

by Trenton Moss on 1 June 2005

Web accessibility is about making your website accessible to all Internet users (both disabled and non-disabled), regardless of what browsing technology they're using.

More and more countries have passed laws stating that websites must be accessible to blind and disabled people. With this kind of legal pressure, and the many benefits of accessibility, the big players on the web must surely have accessible websites, right? Let's find out...

1. Incorrectly assigned ALT text

Guilty party: Amazon

Screen readers, in-car browsers and users connected through slow dial-up connections who turn off images rely on ALT text, in place of images. There are two types of images: informational and decorative. For optimal accessibility, informational images should have an ALT description that adequately describes the image and decorative images should have ALT="" assigned to them. By assigning this null value, browsers simply ignore the image.

The majority of images on Amazon don't have any ALT text - quite extraordinary considering how non-time-consuming it is to assign them. Even more bizarrely, some informational images, such as the Amazon logo, have been assigned ALT="".

2. Non-resizable text

Guilty party: CNN

To take full advantage of the Internet, users with partial or poor sight need to be able to enlarge the text on web pages for the information to be accessible to them. As such, you need to specify the font size in terms of %, em or a relative value (small, medium etc.). CNN have specified the body text to be 12px in size.

3. Text not created through markup

Guilty party: AOL

If images are used to display text then the text is obviously not resizable and not accessible to users with poor sight. Additionally, text embedded in images appears pixelated and blurry to users utilising screen magnifiers. The W3C Priority 2 guidelines (point 3.1) covers this so if your website uses images to display text then it is not AA or AAA accessibility compliant.

Have a look at the screenshot of the AOL homepage below. Aside from the area with the blue background at the bottom, virtually everything you see is created through images, even their phone number (in the very bottom right of the screenshot). What if I want to copy and paste their number into my address book?

Screenshot of the AOL website which uses numerous images to display text

4. Forms aren't accessible

Guilty party: Most major websites (except AOL)

For forms to be accessible, prompt text should be correctly positioned and assigned to form items. For more on accessible forms read our article, Making accessible forms.

To check if an input box is accessible or not, simply click on the text next to it (the prompt text) and a flashing cursor should appear in the box. For radioboxes and checkboxes, when you click on the prompt text the item should become selected.

5. Invalid HTML code

Guilty party: eBay

With so many different browsers and browsing technologies available, invalid HTML code can have really unpredictable results. You can use the useful W3C HTML validator to check.

6. Link text doesn't make sense out of context

Guilty party: Weather Channel

Visually impaired Internet users often browse websites by tabbing from one link to the next, so for maximum accessibility all link text should make sense out of context. ‘Click here’ and ‘more’ are two common examples of non-descriptive link text. Descriptive link text also has web usability and SEO benefits.

Have a look at this screen shot of the Weather Channel. In addition to the ‘Click here’ near the centre of the page, none of the links on the far right make any sense out of context. For example, what do ‘on your desktop’ and ‘free trial’ actually mean by themselves?

Screenshot of the Weather Channel website with a number of examples of non-descriptive link text

7. Using HTML to change font size/colour

Guilty party: Google

Web users with special needs may need to use specific fonts and colours when browsing the web to make a site accessible to them. They can utilise their own CSS document to override the fonts and colours you specify in your CSS document - but not the ones specified in the HTML document. As such, all formatting should be called up through the CSS document and shouldn't be placed in the HTML document. Don't do as Google does and use the <font> or <body> tags to change the colour and size of text. Google's <body> tag, for example, looks like:

<body bgcolor=#ffffff text=#000000 link=#0000cc vlink=#551a8b alink=#ff0000>

8. Tables used for layout

Guilty party: Virtually every major website (except ESPN)

Tables are structural elements so any website laid out with tables is automatically ineligible to be W3C AA or AAA accessibility compliant (see point 3.3 of the W3C guidelines).

Using CSS for layout ahead of tables means your website will be accessible to all ‘future’ technologies: mobile phones, PDAs and in-car browsers. You can test how your website looks on a mobile phone with the Opera mini simulator. Using CSS for layout additionally has search engine benefits and usually allows for a much quicker download.

9. Website relies on JavaScript

Guilty party: Expedia

Approximately 5% of Internet users' browsers don't support JavaScript (source: The Counter) so alternatives should be provided to ensure accessibility to all.

Turn JavaScript off on your browser and then go to Expedia. It's truly remarkable that a website as large as Expedia can't function without JavaScript. Click on any of the tabs at the top of the screen and you'll get this:

Screenshot of the Expedia website requesting that I please activate scripting

They couldn't even be bothered to style it like the rest of the site!

10. Separate ‘accessible’ version

Guilty party: Manchester United

The W3C says you should only resort to a separate accessible version "if all else fails". Separate accessible versions are strongly advised against because:

  • They often have less functionality than the main website
  • They're often not kept as up-to-date as the regular website
  • They can be seen as one more way of excluding disabled people from regular society
  • The regular website may still cause accessibility problems for non-disabled people

Manchester United's website is so bad in terms of accessibility that it could probably have been named as the guilty party for each of the ten points in this article! Manchester United have completely missed the point of web accessibility: Web accessibility is all about following design standards and then adding in a few simple accessibility features. It's not just about disabled users being able to access your website - it's about everyone being able to access your website, including people using handheld devices, WebTV and in-car browsers.


So all-in-all, it looks like the big players aren't leading by example when it comes to web accessibility. Surprising really as they'll undoubtedly be the first ones to have legal action taken against them should more cases start to make it to court. So come on, guys, sort it out. Web accessibility isn't rocket science. Any web developer with basic HTML and CSS design knowledge, and a bit of time on their hands, can learn and implement basic web accessibility.

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