Mobile Accessibility

It’s now widely known and accepted that mobile web access is as popular and will slowly overtake desktop access within the next few years. With this ever-growing usage of mobile devices to connect to the Internet, users with special needs, such as the blind community must also be taken into consideration when we’re creating new sites. Research commissioned by Vodafone in 2009 estimated that, across 19 key markets (representing 1.76bn people) approximately 136 million people, or 11%, experience “moderate or minor disability or impairment”.

Most of the major cell phone manufacturers and service providers have made some effort towards accessibility, however too often their offerings fall short of total access to the disabled community. It is important we remember that not all mobile users are equipped with accessibility assistive technologies which may better address accessibility. To help sort out which device is most accessible for an individual, the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) was created, a database of every handset available and its functionality, operating system, and any accessibility features, which can be used by retail staff to help customers choose their phone.

Some devices, such as the iPhone, provide a high level of accessibility, particularly for the blind, with integral Braille display drivers, so a device can be connected for texting, a screen reader, and a talking camera. There’s a great page on the RNIB site entitled ‘Are your mobile apps accessible?’ which lists the most common handheld devices and operating systems plus highlights the strengths and weaknesses of their built in accessibility options.

Anyway, that’s enough about the actual devices themselves. There’s not much we can do as a team to improve their built-in accessibiliy options but one thing we can do is be mindful of how we produce our websites and ensure that we meet certain levels of standards in their final rendered output.

Something that surprised me during my research is that there is no formal equivalent of the Web Content accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for mobile however there are general Mobile Web Best Practices Guidelines (MWBP). In summary W3C recommends that mobile content developers follow the above two sets of guidelines to ensure full accessibility. By doing this, developers will address both accessibility on mobile devices and for users with special needs. These best practices are not specific to accessibility for users with special needs, however adhering to them can greatly aid in accessibility to users of the disabled community.

Our decision to use Twitter Bootstrap as the CSS framework for the majority of our sites has already taken care of a lot of the overall layout considerations such as one column formats for mobile devices and the transformations of long site-wide navigation elements into dropdown menus etc. Other things we may need to mindful of is the correct usage of any redirects and the amount of steps needed to get to certain content. If we find ourselves using frames and image maps, we need to be aware that not all mobile devices support these.

A few other nifty things I discovered during my research were some special HTML5 tags specific to smartphone use. For example, telephone numbers can be made clickable through the use of the ‘format-detection’ tag.

<meta name=”format-detection” content=”telephone=yes”/>

Some good sites / pages I found which list more useful tags are as follows:

‘Site Improve’ also has a good page which lists the basic things to consider in general.

It would be great to hear from other organisations or individuals regarding the things that they take into consideration when developing for the mobile community.

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