Web Standards & Accessibility: What it’s like to have impaired vision

While I have always tried to code my websites so that the layouts won’t break when you bump the text size up a few notches, until recently that’s been an exercise that felt somewhat abstract to me. It was something on my checklist, along with good color contrast, alt tags, and all the other things that conscientious designers are supposed to do to maximize accessibility for people with impaired vision. My mental image of the typical visitor who bumps up the text size was someone (forgive me) like my mom, who is in her late 60’s and is always misplacing her reading glasses. Her vision is quite good for her age. If it weren’t, she’d probably have bifocals and therefore would not need to worry about reading glasses. As it is, it’s easier for her to hit Command + to increase the text size than go searching for the darn things.

My own reading vision is fine. The only time I ever increase the text size is to test my layouts to make sure they don’t break for people like my mom.

Until recently, that is.

No, it’s not because I’m past forty. It’s because I have a new computer. And although the old computer had a physically larger screen it had a lower resolution. Consequently, everthing is much smaller now, and I find myself hitting Command + a lot! Don’t get me wrong: I love my new MacBook Pro — but its high resolution (1680 x 1050) has required more of an adjustment than I expected.

So far I’ve been quite impressed with how well that Command + function works. Most of the sites I frequent don’t break, at least not significantly. However, it really bugs me that Firefox doesn’t remember your settings when you open a new tab. I know I could change my default font size in the Preferences pane, but I prefer not to do that. I want to see what the average user sees (is there such thing as an “average” user?), and most people don’t realize that you can change their browser’s default font size. I’m sure many people don’t know about Command + either.

I knew that my new computer would improve my work process in a lot of ways. It’s bigger, faster, and better than anything I’ve had before. But I didn’t expect that it would actually improve my product, by giving me better understanding of the needs of people with visual impairments — and new realization that the demographic is much larger than I’d realized, since even those with otherwise-normal vision may find themselves having difficulties as technology improves and screen resolutions increase.