One myth about web accessibility is that people with disabilities benefit from text-only versions. These versions may decrease loading times for users with slow internet connections, but that is often the extent of their helpfulness. There is little benefit for someone with a disability, and for some disabilities, a text-only version is less accessible. It is much more effective to make the original version accessible than to create an alternative text-only version.
Why Some People Think Text-only = Accessible
Screen readers and alternative text for images are often the first things to come to mind when most people think about web accessibility. Many do not consider how web accessibility applies to people have auditory disabilities, motor disabilities, seizure disorders, color-blindness, low vision, or cognitive disabilities. If complete blindness is the only disability considered, a text-only version seems reasonable, as it can save developers time and money that would otherwise go toward adding the alternative text to all the images. However, there are a number of reasons this approach is insufficient.
The Case Against Text-only Versions
Text-only versions fail to accommodate the full spectrum of disability types
Text-only versions do not accomplish the goal of accessibility. They accommodate users with some disabilities but neglect other types of disabilities. Websites with text-only versions often indicate that the site's designers have an inadequate understanding web accessibility. These versions are often created with the intent to make the page accessible, but the needs of all other types of disabilities are overlooked.
Removing graphics and visual presentations makes content less accessible for some disability types
How can a page full of text—and only text—increase accessibility for these individuals with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities? Many of these individuals would benefit greatly from more graphics, more multimedia, and visual styling. In these cases, the text-only version may actually be less accessible than the original version. This often holds true for sighted users across wide spectrum of disabilities.
"Regular" web pages are more transformable
The regular version of a web page can easily be presented as a text-only version. Screen readers read the text of web pages and will ignore graphical and stylistic elements on a web page unless alternative text is included. 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 format. With few exceptions, visual presentation and CSS styles have little or no impact on the way a screen reader reads the content. In other words, a screen reader will transform the regular version into a text-only version.
"Separate but equal" is rarely equal
Ability-separated web sites are rarely equal when separate. Designers usually can't spend the time and effort necessary to make text-only versions as useful or as robust as the regular versions, and important information is often left out in some versions. Text-only versions may send a message to people with disabilities: "You can't come in the front door. Try the back door instead." Relegating a class of people to a second-class status is often an unintentional result of creating a text-only version.
Text-only versions offer a false sense of security
Text-only versions can give developers a false sense of security. They might think they are finished with their accessibility obligations once the text-only version is complete and may neglect additional measures, like captioning videos, adding illustrations to the main version where necessary, or checking for missing alt text for images. Accessibility cannot be solved completely with any one solution—it requires careful planning, and continued vigilance. A text-only solution may lull developers into thinking that they no longer need to keep accessibility in mind.
While text-only versions of content might be made conformant with accessibility guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, providing an accessible alternative to inaccessible content does not render that inaccessible content conformant.
Multiple versions make it difficult to maintain
Text-only versions require considerable effort to maintain. Because they are separate from the main page, designers may neglect them. Updates may not be reflected on the text-only version, and the information can quickly become outdated and inaccurate. Although it is possible for developers to create a system that can keep the text-only version updated, solving the issue of maintenance, this does not resolve the other issues with using text-only versions and would require considerable time and effort to implement.
When to Use Text-only Versions
Despite all of the arguments against text-only sites, there are rare situations in which a text-only version might be an appropriate solution. Some interactive multimedia elements may be so complex that trying to make them accessible to some users would actually make them less accessible and introduce additional hurdles. A text-only version may serve as a fallback means of trying to explain what the interactive multimedia element was trying to accomplish. This may not make the component accessible, but a text-only version at least provides something, which is better than nothing. It is often best to eliminate or redesign multimedia that is overly complex. However, sometimes these issues are out of the developer's control—for example, a multimedia element created by a third party. In such a case, a text-only option would be better than nothing. Text-only versions should be used only when other methods are not sufficient.