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Using Lynx to Test Modern Web Sites for Accessibility

Lynx Browser ScreenshotIf someone were to tell you that you could test a modern, standards-compliant website for accessibility using 20-year old web browser technology, you might think they were crazy. This crazy idea is something that I thought up a few weeks ago when I was sleep deprived, but as it turns out, I might actually be on to something.

See, when you strip away the modern website complexities of things like CSS 3, JavaScript, or Flash, you end up with the same old technology that websites “back in the day” used: HTML. This HyperText Markup Language has been around since the beginnings of the web, and was used to create the first web pages back in 1991. Sure, its gotten more complex over the years, but at its core, it’s still the same.

When the web was first invented, software was needed to navigate through the simplistic HTML page structures of the time. A web browser called Lynx was created to fill this need. Of course, as the web grew, and as computers became powerful and fast enough to process graphics-rich websites, the use of Lynx slowly disappeared.

So, what’s so special about Lynx and how can it be used to test modern websites for accessibility? After all, this browser is over 20 years old. It doesn’t seem like it could or would be used for much any longer.

Well, as it turns out, Lynx is a great for testing websites for accessibility because it has some very desirable traits:

  • It’s all text-based, and the text that is rendered when Lynx processes a web page is exactly what individuals with visual impairments will hear when listing to a website with a screen reader. This means that web developers can visually “see” the same things that the screen readers will “see.” This also means you can easily proof a website for any textual errors.
  • It cannot handle images, and because of this, the alt attributes of an image tag will automatically be used in place of the images. This allows web developers to see exactly which images do not have alt tags, and be able to fix them.
  • It doesn’t run JavaScript. Many individuals (even those without visual impairments) will turn off JavaScript in their browsers, and web developers need to be able to handle these exceptions with end users. Because JavaScripts aren’t executed by Lynx, developers can see first-hand what elements of the page don’t work right when this feature is not available.
  • It doesn’t run Flash. Enough said here. Flash is often a pain for visual users, but it can be difficult if not impossible to navigate for visually impaired end users when they attempt to load a Flash page that isn’t designed with accessibility in mind.
  • It doesn’t run Java Applets. Just like Flash, in my testing, Java Applets don’t work very well with screen readers, if they work at all. This is another plus when testing a website for accessibility.

Not only do these 5 traits make Lynx the perfect test bed when designing accessible websites, but after doing a little more research I found that Lynx is actually used in the visually impaired community to as a web browser to power Refreshable Braille Displays. These expensive displays translate text in the web browser into raised dots arranged in a way that produces readable braille for visually impaired users. This technology reduces the need for users with visual impairments to rely on screen readers with their often harsh, computer-synthesized voices, and leaves the interpretation up to the reader.

Whether you’re testing websites for accessibility, or just want to take a gander at the way things used to be on the web, be sure to check out my guide on MacLife.com for a how-to on installing Lynx on a Mac. There are also versions of Lynx for Linux and Windows. You can find out more about Lynx on Wikipedia or the Lynx project website.

How about you? What tools do you find helpful when testing the accessibility of a Web site? Let’s hear from you in the comments!

[Lead image created by the author.]

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