Are Text Only Content Versions Accessible?
The accessibility for people with disabilities of web page text-only versions is one of the biggest myths of web accessibility. The truth is that practically nobody with a disability benefits in any way from a text-only version at all.
Text-only versions may benefit some people with slow Internet connections, but do not benefit people with disabilities. In almost every case, it would be better to fix the original version than to create an alternative text-only version.
Why do Some Think Text-only Content = Accessibility
The web accessibility issue that is usually the most familiar with those unfamiliar with accessibility is usually visual disabilities or blindness. When most people are thinking about web accessibility, they think of screen readers and alt text for images.
They don’t think nearly as much about people who are deaf, people with motor disabilities, or people with seizure disorders, color-blindness, low vision, or cognitive disabilities.
With this heavy bias toward blindness, it makes sense that a text-only version could benefit users who don’t need images, graphics or illustrations.
Adopting this logic, creating a text-only version could save developers some effort because they wouldn’t have to insert graphics, and wouldn’t have to add alt text for them. Parts of this logic are true. People who can’t see graphics don’t need graphics. Adding alt text is an extra step that could be avoided by not including any graphics at all. Other parts of this logic, however, don’t hold true.
The Case Against Text-only Web Content
Is Text-only Content Biased Against Other Disabilities
The most important argument against text-only versions is that they do not accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. Text-only versions accommodate just one kind of disability, blindness.
Sometimes it just takes a special swing to make a child smile…… Your goal should be that every visitor who encounters your web content smiles.
Web sites with text-only content are evidence that the site’s designers do not understand what web accessibility actually means. They created the text-only version thinking they were making the page accessible. However, doing this they neglected to address the needs of any other types of disability.
True web accessibility requires you to abandon stereotypes, embrace real accessibility for all, and for you to think outside the box.
Graphics and Visuals May be Required
Consider people with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities. Some of these individuals could benefit greatly from having more graphics, more multimedia, and more CSS styling. How can a page full of text, increase accessibility for these individuals?
A text-only site is actually less accessible than the original graphical version for some people with disabilities.
Transformable Web Pages are Accessible
The regular version of a web page is already a text-only version, even if it includes graphics and CSS styles. Screen readers only read text, so they ignore the graphical and stylistic elements of your web content. Screen readers don’t attempt to interpret the visual information of an image, they simply read the alt attribute, which is already in a “text-only” format.
For the most part, visual presentation and CSS styles have no impact whatsoever on the way a screen reader reads the content. What screen reader users experience is a text-only version of your web page. Your full version is instantly transformed into a text-only version.
However, there are no technologies available to the average consumer to transform text-only versions into graphical versions. Technology can’t create appropriate styles where none existed before. Text-only versions are not easily transformable into other formats.
“Separate but Equal” Does not Mean Accessible
Another argument against text-only versions is that they create an apartheid kind of Internet that supposes that “separate but equal” versions of content actually are the same. As with racially segregated classrooms, ability-separated web sites are rarely equal when separate.
Web designers rarely spend the time and effort necessary to make text-only versions as useful or as robust as the regular versions. Important information is often left out entirely. On a psychological level, text-only versions send a message to people with disabilities. It tells them that “You can’t come in the front door. Try the back door instead.”
Relegating anyone to a second-class status may not be the intention behind text-only versions, but it is frequently the result.
Does Text-only Create a False Sense of Security?
A third problem is that text-only sites can give developers a false sense of security. They might think that, with their text-only version, they have finished their accessibility obligations.
They may not think to take additional measures, like captioning their videos, adding illustrations to the main version where necessary, or even check for missing alt text for images.
Accessibility is not something that can be solved once and for all with the implementation of any one solution. Accessibility requires careful planning, and continual vigilance.
Having a supposed solution to the problem may lull developers into thinking that they no longer have to keep accessibility in mind.
Text-only is Difficult to Maintain
On a more practical level, text-only versions can be difficult to maintain. Because they constitute the metaphorical “back door,” designers neglect them. Updates are not always reflected on the text-only version, and before long, the information is outdated and inaccurate.
Some developers have created sophisticated systems to ensure that text-only versions are kept up-to-date with the regular versions. Some keep the content in a database and serve it out through different templates and/or style sheets. Others use the text transcoders of third-party vendors to accomplish the same goal.
With these sorts of systems in place, the issues of maintenance may be solved, but they do not negate the other issues with using text-only versions.
When to Use Text-only Versions
Despite all of the arguments against text-only sites, web developers may be faced with situations that might call for a text-only solution. Perhaps an interactive multimedia element would be too difficult to make accessible to screen readers. A text-only version may serve as a fallback means of trying to explain what the interactive multimedia element was trying to accomplish.
Does Text-Only Achieve True Accessibility?
Does text-only content achieve true accessibility? Is the text-only version the equivalent of a complex interactive multimedia element? No, of course not. In these cases, though, something is usually better than nothing, and a text-only version is at least a method of providing something.
Some might argue that the multimedia element should either be eliminated or redesigned so that it can be made accessible to screen reader users. They have a point. Where possible, multimedia should be made directly accessible.
On the other hand, sometimes these issues are out of the developer’s control—for example, if the multimedia element was created by a third party. Just be careful. Use text-only versions to accommodate certain types of disabilities when necessary, but only when necessary.
The Courts will Decide About Accessibility
The bottom line in deciding whether text-only content is accessible and acceptable is not an issue that will be decided by web developers. The final arbiters will be the courts, where disabled users will take their grievances if they are unhappy and feel that your content is unavailable to them.
Already many archives and libraries are removing large amounts of graphical information from the internet. They are taking this action because they fear the financial impact of lawsuits. Even if they would win in court, the costs could be prohibitive.