At a recent Web Designer User Group meeting, the issue of the “Skip navigation” guideline from the Section 508 web accessibility standards was raised. One of the presenters had used the “skip navigation” feature on the web site he was showcasing, but had “hidden” the link from view using CSS. Someone raised the question, “why would you hide it?”
Given the time available at the meeting, I did not provide a response then, but I will now.
First, to explain fully what “skip navigation” is I will refer you to the Web AIM website where you can read an extensive explanation.
But the short answer is…When the Section 508 web accessibility guidelines were developed 12 years ago as an addition to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 the issue of navigation links, or the navigation menu commonly found on web pages created headaches for people who used screen reader assistive technology. At the time, people who used screen readers had rather limited options when it came to reading web pages as the technology of the time could just basically read the content of the page without differentiating various parts. The standard web design custom then – as now – was to build a web page with a title at the top, a menu of internal links (navigation links) either across the top of the page or down the left side of the page, and the content below or to the right of the menu. This meant that a screen reader user had to listen to all of the content of the menu before they got to the main content of the page. It may be okay to read all of these navigation links on first page visited, but it quickly gets tedious when one reads through multiple page on a website and is forced to listen to all of the menu items repeated over and over again. So, the “skip navigation” link was a method designed to help screen reader users by creating a by-pass link around a long list of menu items.
As the years have gone by screen reader technology has changed dramatically and there are now methods built into all of the major screen readers that allow the user to move about the web page more readily ostensibly allowing the user to “browse” the content without having to read every word. However , the Section 508 guideline on “skip navigation” (specifically standard “o”) continues despite these advancements.
I should point out that another method web designers can now use to solve this issue is to put the content toward the top of the page and the navigation after the content. The designer then uses CSS to relocate the navigation menu content back at the top or side of the page for non-screen reader users to see in the usual location. But the screen reader “sees” the page in the order is it written with the content first and the navigation menu later. This is the method I prefer to use and I always seek to choose CMS themes/templates that are designed to render the content in this manner.
Regarding the “hiding” of the “Skip Navigation” link – that’s purely optional as the Section 508 requirement is still met as long as the screen reader can see it. There really is no obvious reason to make it visible and it has the potential to create some confusion to the casual web user.
Why this is particularly interesting is that today WebAIM released a report on their third survey of screen reader users. In December 2010, WebAIM conducted a survey of preferences of screen reader users and received over 1,200 responses. One question pertained specifically to the “skip navigation” issue and I think it supports my position.
When survey respondents were asked, “When a ‘skip to main content’ or ‘skip navigation’ link is available on a page, how often do you use it?” 29% said they used it “sometimes,” 22% said “seldom,” and nearly 14% said they “never” use this feature. On the other end, 15% of respondents said they used the skip navigation links “Whenever they’re available” and just over 16% said they used them “often.” This suggests that the “skip navigation” is used by a minority of screen reader users. The report also observes that, “…there has been a slight decrease in the usage of ‘skip’ links…likely due to increased usage of headings and landmarks for navigation…” In addition, the survey also reports that just over 57% of respondents use the “Navigate through the headings on the page” as the most popular method for “finding information on a lengthy page.”
I suspect that when Section 508 is revise in the coming years the “skip navigation” requirement itself will be…skipped!
What do you think?