Tuesday, May 02, 2006

SharePoint Portal Server Accessibility Research


Following a 1 day research in a customer site, some conclusions were made on the best practices of implementing a portal server so that it meets accessibility requirements. This document will summarize these conclusions and offer a review of the steps needed to be implemented to achieve the goal of a more accessible portal.

This document’s purpose is to outline the steps that are necessary to perform to get SharePoint Portal Server as compatible as possible with WCAG 1.0 specifications for web sites, with a focus on Conformance Level A. The document will describe the methods of research taken by the author and his recommendations for future enhancements to improve accessibility in a customer’s SharePoint Portal Server site.

This document is meant for the people in charge of SharePoint Portal Server deployment in accessibility aware companies, to be used as a “best practices” guideline when deploying the portal and extending it by developing new web parts. The recommendation section of this document is meant for technical people only – and includes details of how to work around and improve SharePoint Portal Server accessibility.


WSS Windows SharePoint Services.
A platform for creating sites that hold information and provide users a graphical interface to access that information and to add more.

SPS SharePoint Portal Server.
A platform that extends Windows SharePoint Services, and allows creating portal sites that hold information in a structure based on “Areas”. Additional capabilities of the platform include:

  • Better search engine
  • Dynamic structure of sites
  • Listings mechanism to add data to several sites at once.
  • Personalization features including
  • Audiences mechanism to target data to people
  • ‘My Site’ – a personal site for each user

Web parts
Blocks of information that can be added to Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server sites.
These blocks may be written by a 3rd party or be a built in from Microsoft. Web parts can be used to display lists (such as links, document libraries, events and so on) or external information (for example weather)

Templates & Site Definitions
Folders and files on the SharePoint server under the folder “C:\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\web server extensions\60\TEMPLATE\1033”

  1. If a change is made to an “.aspx” file, the change will affect all existing sites and areas in SharePoint Portal Server and Windows SharePoint Services sites.
  2. If a change is made to an “.xml” file, the change will affect only newly created sites and areas.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. W3C guidelines that explain how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities.

Watchfire® Bobby ™ An application that analyses a web site and produces a report of errors and warnings for that site’s accessibility, based on the WCAG. This document refers to evaluation version of Watchfire® Bobby ™

Conformance Level A
Priority 1 Guidelines represent a base level of accessibility and include problems that seriously affect the web page's usability by people with disabilities. This is referred in ‘Bobby’ as “Priority 1”

Conformance Level AA
Priority 2 Guidelines include problems that, although not as vital as Priority 1, are important for access and should be corrected. This is the preferred conformance level for an accessible site. This is referred in ‘Bobby’ as “Priority 2”

Conformance Level AAA
Priority 3 Priority 3 guidelines include issues that you should also consider correcting. This is referred in ‘Bobby’ as “Priority 3”


To test SharePoint Portal Server compatibility with WCAG conformance level A, I used Bobby to scan an out-of-the-box portal set up for testing purposes to check the default portal before any modifications were made. I also checked the customer’s portal to check the impact of additional 3rd party and customized web parts will have on the accessibility. The test was focused on the home page of the portal, but also included:

  1. The search page (both with and without search results)
  2. List pages
  3. Document libraries pages
The research only focused on the output from the “Bobby” application, and there are things that application cannot check. For example, high contrast colours and font sizes. This was ignored in the test, and assumed fixable by a graphic designer.



The default SharePoint Portal Server Portal shows no Conformance Level A (Priority 1 in Bobby) errors. This means that the default portal is accessible enough for most companies. However, there were a few (10) warnings for level A, which I will specify here, and give my opinion on how they should be regarded. The warnings for Conformance Level A are:

  1. Warning: Provide extended description for images with important information. (58 instances)
    My Response:
    On a default SharePoint Portal Server home page there are no images with important information.
    This warning can be ignored.

  2. Warning: If you use colour to convey information, make sure the information is also represented another way.
    My Response: On a default SharePoint Portal Server portal, colours are not used to convey information.
    This warning should be checked with new 3rd party or customized web parts introduced into the system
  3. Warning: Identify any changes in the document's language.
    My Response: On a default SharePoint Portal Server portal, there are no changes in document’s language.
    This warning can be ignored.
  4. Warning: If this is a data table (not used for layout only), identify headers for the table rows and columns
    My Response: Most web parts comply with this guideline, including all of Microsoft’s built-in web parts
    This warning should be checked with new 3rd party or customized web parts introduced into the system
  5. Warning: If a table has two or more rows or columns that serve as headers, use structural markup to identify their hierarchy and relationship.
    My Response: On a default SharePoint Portal Server portal, there are no instances of the above.
    This warning should be checked with new 3rd party or customized web parts introduced into the system
  6. Warning: If style sheets are ignored or unsupported, ensure that pages are still readable and usable.
    My Response: The default SharePoint Portal Server portal pages were tested, and were found to be readable and usable.
    See Image below for example.

    This warning can be ignored.
  7. Warning: Make sure pages are still usable if programmatic objects do not function
    My Response: This cannot be achieved in a SharePoint Portal Server site. The site relies heavily on JavaScript objects for functionality. However, most links will still be usable for readers but not for editors in the SharePoint Portal Server site
    This warning can be ignored if the person viewing the portal is a reader and not a content editor.
    If the user is a content editor in the portal, there are some ways to overcome this warning by customizing some of the problematic views that require scripts. This will be discussed later in this document.
  8. Warning: Make sure that the page does not cause the screen to flicker rapidly.
    My Response: Default SharePoint Portal Server pages do not cause the screen to flicker.
    This warning can be ignored.
  9. Warning: Provide accessible alternatives to the information in scripts, applets, or objects
    My Response: This cannot be achieved in a SharePoint Portal Server site. SharePoint Portal Server page require scripts to work. Browsers that don’t allow scripts will not be able to open the site.
    This warning can be ignored.
  10. Warning: Use the simplest and most straightforward language that is possible.
    My Response: This depends on the content authors
    This warning can be ignored.

Portal in a browser with CSS disabled is still readable

Bobby results for a default (out of the box) Portal shows no errors for priority 1

Bobby results for the search page shows no errors for priority 1



After testing the default portal installation, I added some web parts to test the default, built-in web parts that come from Microsoft. The results were the same as described in the previous test, except for the link list.

A link list web part has a special view – summarized view that shows the list of links in a bulleted list. This makes the list of links more usable – more readable to users, and is the recommended way to display the list in a portal page.

However, it turned out in the test that this view breaks WCAG Conformance Level A - since the bullet images do not have an ‘alt’ tag as required.

Bobby results for the a portal home page that has a bulleted link list shows errors for priority 1



When installing or developing a web part (such as ABC news) makes sure all Level A requirements are met when the web part gets rendered.
This includes giving an ‘alt’ tag to every image, not using colors to convey information and giving names to frames.
Every web part developed or downloaded should be first checked in the development environment and tested with Bobby for Conformity level A errors.


By changing the views of the lists to include the “edit” icon, it will be possible for people who can’t use the scripted drop down menus to edit list items.
Existing lists will have to be modified manually (or by writing a script) to include this icon, but new lists can be made to have it by default by changing the lists templates in the site definitions.
It is recommended that this change is taken, and that the edit icon is present in every view that also has the drop down menu.
The location of this icon should be right after the file name column so that when a user tabs through the links, the link to edit will be near the file name.


During research it turned out that the built-in web parts that show a list of links in a summarized view (bulleted view) the bullet images do not have an ‘alt’ attribute assigned to them.
Since this breaks WCAG Conformance Level A, it is recommended to change the view to one of the following two options:

  1. Don’t use the summarized view. Instead, use a regular view of the link list that doesn’t show bullets, and does show a header for the hyperlink column.
    This option is easiest to implement and only lacks in reduced usability of the site since bulleted lists are easier for the human eye to follow.
  2. Transform the summarized view to an xslt data view using Microsoft FrontPage 2003. This will allow changing the xsl code to include an empty ‘alt’ tag to the bullet image.


In their article “Tips for Enhancing the Accessibility of SharePoint Web Sites”, Samer Sawaya and Les W. Smith define some methods for enhancing SharePoint. It is recommended that these steps are taken, to enhance the CDDP portal, especially:

  1. Add skip-to-main-content link
  2. Add submit buttons to bottom of forms
  3. Don’t use the built-in image web part. Instead use the content editor web part to add an image with the necessary tags (‘alt’ and ‘longdesc’)

I also recommend that in addition to a “skip to content link” another improvement on the article is to add a “skip to navigation” link. This link will allow the user to skip all links and get to the navigation section of the page (the section that shows the sub sites, and the actions the user can do in the page).


Some more research is needed to evaluate if it will be possible to use two different CSS files, based on the user’s preferences. It is recommended that this research is done, and if possible that thisdevelopment task gets developed since that will allow developing a high contrast/large fonts style sheet that will be used only by certain people and will not affect all of the users in the organization.
However, it is still possible to change the current CSS file of theportal to have higher contrast. This may need the study of a graphical designer.


It turns out that SharePoint is almost completely compliant with WCAG conformance level 1 as it is out of the box. To get it to be fully conforming there are some things that need to be done.

One can only hope that future versions will at least keep the current status and high standard, and even improve to comply with level 2 (which was not discussed in this document).

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