Accessibility Interview | June 11, 2006

I was recently interviewed for an article on accessibility in this month’s .Net magazine. Here is what I had to say:

1: Why are so many sites still inaccessible?

There is still a large amount of ambivalence regarding web accessibility, from both developers and clients. Many clients are either unaware that the disability discrimination act covers them, or simply don’t care. However, it is not really the clients fault. It is the responsibility of the web development profession to educate clients about their legal responsibilities and build accessibility into their projects, whether specified or not. Unfortunately, due to the increased commoditization of web design, budgets continue to fall and accessibility is often one of the first areas to be affected.

If I employed a professional architect, I would expect them to design a house that complied with current legislation and industry best practices. I wouldn’t be expected to learn all this information up front, to make sure they did a good job. That’s why you hire professionals. If my budget wasn’t sufficient, I could go to a local cowboy, but I’d end up with a poorly executed job that didn’t comply with the necessary standards. In this situation, I would reduce the scope of the house or wait until I had a bigger budget. Unfortunately, many web design clients choose to go the route of the cowboy builder, often–I may add–through no fault of their own.

2: How far has web accessibility come and how far has it to go?

I think web accessibility has come a long way in the last few years, largely thanks to the work of activists like Joe Clark, organizations like the RNIB and legislation such as the DDA and section 508. However there is still a long way to go, and web developers need to make sure that accessibility becomes part of their development process rather than an optional extra.

As well as focusing on developers and clients, lets not forget that the manufactures of assistive devices also have a huge role to play here. Traditionally the major screenreader companies have had surprisingly little involvement in the web accessibility community, and this needs to change.

3: How does PAS 78 help create good accessible sites and is it easy/effective to apply?

PAS 78 provides a set of practical guidelines for clients to follow when commissioning accessible web design services. Unfortunately, end clients need to be made aware of these guidelines, and initially this will only happen in organizations where accessibility is already a concern. The vast majority of developers and clients won’t have heard of these guidelines, or be willing to pay for access to them.

4: Do you still need to look at other guidelines seperately?

There is some misunderstanding about the nature of these guidelines. PAS 78 is intended to act as a guide for people commissioning accessible web design and development services. Agencies themselves still need to be aware of WCAG1.0 and the forthcoming WCAG2.0, as well as other international guidelines. It is also important to remember that web accessibility isn’t just about a series of checkpoints; it’s about real people with real accessibility issues. As well as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, authors need to be aware of usability issues and should test their site with a wide variety of users. This is something PAS 78 takes great pains to point out.

5: How do you deal with difficult clients who are adamant that they don’t really care about a really accessible site as long as it looks good?

Web accessibility isn’t an optional extra so shouldn’t be treated as such. Rather than asking if clients want their site to be accessible, professional web developers should simply build more accessible websites. That way you never need to get into these kind of tricky client negotiations.

Going back to the architect analogy, I doubt you’d ever see a professional architect suggesting wheelchair access as an optional extra when it was actually a legal requirement. Moreover, if the client said to drop the wheelchair access because they wanted to save a bit of money, I doubt any professional architect would agree, preferring to lose the project rather than compromise their professional integrity.

6: What is the process of creating/testing a site for accessibility?

We build all of our sites using web standards, which helps greatly when it comes to web accessibility. We also understand the various accessibility guidelines and keep abreast of the latest recommendations and best practices. However, none of this is a substitute for real user testing and this is something we encourage as much as possible.

7: What’s a designer’s biggest accessibility headache (and why)?

I believe that it’s entirely possible to create beautifully rich designs that are also highly accessible with the minimum of extra effort. However, from a purely visual design point of view, motion graphics probably form the hardest challenge. From a broader development point of view, I think the biggest headache is poor documentation and inconsistent support by the various screenreaders. Ajax is extremely big at the moment, yet few people know exactly how the screenreaders interact with the browser and handle updated page content. This problem is going to get increasingly more severe unless certain screenreader manufacturers start to participate in the web accessibility community.

Comments (12)

Accessibility and the Law | June 19, 2005

Social responsibility is a lofty ideal. I would love to live in a world where each individual felt personally responsible for the world around them, and acted accordingly. Unfortunately the reality is much different. We live in an increasingly selfish society where the needs of the individual outweigh the needs the larger community. It’s sad, but that’s human nature.

So how does this relate to web accessibility. Well I would love to think that through education, social and commercial pressure, people would just get accessibility, and to a certain extent they are. Groups like the RNIB have done a wonderful job of publicising the need for more accessible sites, while the web standards movement has helped show web developers the importance of bringing accessibility into their workflow.

Unfortunately this isn’t enough. While it would be nice to believe we live in a self correcting and regulating society, the reality is very different. Some people suggest that in-accessible sites are commercial suicide and that companies will be forced to make their site accessible just to survive. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Discrimination targets a minority, and by their very nature minorities don’t usually have the social, political or economic power to stop the discrimination. Even if they could there will always be some individuals motivated by greed or ignorance that are willing to cut corners and ignore the social norms.

As such, legislation is a very important part of the process. We should be educating people about disability discrimination and encouraging companies to take a socially responsible attitude. However if that doesn’t work we need to have a legal framework to fall back on. If somebody feels that are being discriminated there needs to be a mechanism in place to help them redress the balance.

In the UK we have the disability discrimination act. This isn’t accessibility legislation, it’s discrimination legislation. As such the DDA doesn’t try to define what accessibility is and isn’t. What the disability discrimination act does is make it unlawful for any service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing any service which it provides to a member of public. Further to this, from the 1st Oct 1999 the service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice that makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use that service.

This legislation doesn’t demand conformance to certain accessibility guidelines through fear of prosecution. However it does give people a legal route if social pressure has failed. Rather than immediately being taken to court, the DDA encourages discussion and mediation. Only after all the parties have sat down and still cannot come to a reasonable solutions will civil action be started. Several companies have already gone through this process and all have made suitable concessions to avoid legal action.

I would love to live an a world where everybody acted in a socially responsible way. However the reality is we need to have legislation to help enforce equality in the cases where social, commercial or political pressure alone aren’t enough.

Comments (22)

Alt Text, Image Captions and Accessibility | February 9, 2005

Here’s an accessibility question for everybody out there. If an image has a caption that accurately describes the content of the image, do you still need to add alternative text, or would a blank alt attribute be OK? Whereas some screenreaders can read link text out of context, I don’t believe there are any that read images out of context. As such, apart from when images are links, I can’t see a situation where the additional duplication of the image caption in the alt text would be useful. However I can see that for large photo gallery style pages, the duplication could get very irritating to screenreader users.

What do you think?

Comments (31)

Text Email Newsletter "Standard" | August 11, 2004

The people behind the E-access Bulletin Newsletter have suggested a format to increase the accessibility of email newsletters. The format, which they are calling the Text Email Newsletter Standard includes suggestions such as

Most of these suggestions make sense, although a couple of issues were raised on a WAI mailing list recently. I’d be interested to see what you folks make of these recommendations, especially if you’re involved in the accessibility community or the writing of email newsletters.

Comments (3)

Accessible Odeon | July 12, 2004

Dear Sir/Madam,

I was deeply saddened by the Odeon's decision to force Matthew Somerville to remove his accessible version of your site with the threat of legal action.

I'm a regular patron of my local Odeon but am unable to use your website due to my choice of computer platform and browser (Mac OS X and Safari). Because of this I am unable to book tickets online, leading to a reduction in the number of times I visit your cinema. I contacted you well over a year ago about this accessibility problem and was told you were working on a solution. Unfortunately this solution has yet to be realised.

Being a web designer myself, I understand that it's not always easy to retrofit such a large website. However you do have a legal obligation under the disability discrimination act to make your online services accessible. Matthew has done an extremely good job of creating an accessible version of your site. Rather than threaten him with legal action, wouldn't it be better to work with him in order to comply with your own legal requirements and create a more user friendly customer expirience?


Andy Budd

Comments (27)

Quick Accessibility Quiz - The Answers | July 5, 2004

Thanks to everybody who took part. In the end the quiz turned out to be much harder than I’d expected, with only a couple of people getting all the answers right. I threw in a load of trick questions which tripped quite a few of you up. Still it was worth it just to see the discussions it provoked, which was half of the purpose in the first place. So without further adieu here are the correct answers.

Q1. To get an A rating you need to

Answer d. None of the above.

  1. You quite often see the main nav duplicated at the bottom of a page as regular text based anchors. While this is a nice accessibility/usability touch it’s not a requirement. Priority one does require you to “provide redundant text links for each active region of a server-side image map” but using images as nav elements is OK as long as they have alternative text.
  2. The guidelines suggest creating a simple text/HTML version of a site only if all else fails. Generally this is considered bad form as it segregates the audience and could be seen as discrimination in it’s own right. Think how you’d feel if you were a wheelchair user and were forced to go to a special “disabled cinema” rather than watch the film with everybody else. Sure it’s a quick fix and arguably better than nothing, but separate “accessible” sites are no long term solution.
  3. It’s perfectly acceptable to use colour to convey important information, just as long as that’s not the only way you do it. For instance, it’s OK to use red text for error messages just as long as you use some other mechanism like emboldening as well.
  4. As such the correct answer is d. None of the above

Q2. To get a AA rating you must

Answer b. Use relative rather than absolute units.

  1. There is a common misconception that frames are inaccessible which isn’t strictly the case. To get AA rating you can use frames just as long as you provide a description of the function of each frame and how it relates to the other frames in the frameset.
  2. This is the correct answer. For your site to get a AA rating the checkpoints state that you must use relative rather than absolute units. This is expanded in the techniques section where it says you should “Only use absolute length units when the physical characteristics of the output medium are known, such as bitmap images”. However things get a little greyer if you read the example text beneath the checkpoint which says “If absolute units are used, validate that the rendered content is usable”. This seems to almost invalidate what’s been said before and looks very open to interpritation. A good example of how unclear the language of the WAI guidelines can be.
  3. Obviously this was a trick question. It’s true that you must avoid deprecated tags. However <b> and <i> are not depricated. Another very common misconception.
  4. Obviously “all of the above” has to be wrong as a and c are wrong.

Q3. To get a AA rating you must also

Answer d. None of the above.

  1. Fieldsets are useful to group long forms into smaller, easier to digest chunks. Doing so helps your document comply to checkpoint 12.3. However you only need to do this “when appropriate” so you’re not required to add a fieldset to every form.
  2. This one was a bit of a trick question. You should obviously try to make sure that any tables used for layout make sense when linearized. However this doesn’t apply to data tables which, when linearized may make little or no sense at all.
  3. There is quite a common belief that Javascript is bad for accessibility and shouldn’t be used at all. However Javascript is fine when used in a sensible way. Currently it’s being suggested that Javascript should be applied as a behavior layer to add extra functionality to a document without compromising it’s accessibility. Just as the content of your site should be accessible with CSS turned off, it should also be accessible when Javascript is turned off. If you do use Javascript to write content to the screen, you should make use of the <noscript> tag to provide alternative content. You should also avoid using javascript to spawn new windows as it can really confuse screenreader users. However used sensibly, Javascript is fine.
  4. So by a process of elimination, the answer must be d. none of the above.

Q4. To get a AAA rating you must

Answer c. Make sure all the pages share a similar design.

  1. There is a common misconception that, to make a site accessible, you must use CSS for layout instead of tables. While it is recommended that you use CSS for layout, a table based site can still get a AAA rating.
  2. It’s quite common to replicate the main nav at the bottom of the page as a little usability/accessibility bonus. However it’s not a requirement.
  3. To avoid confusion you should try and make sure that all the pages on your site share a common design.
  4. Obviously as c. is correct, “all of the above” must be incorrect.

Q5. Which site is more accessible?

Answer d. Don’t know

  1. This was the question that got me started with this quick accessibility quiz. Accessibility isn’t about checking boxes, it’s about making the content of a site as accessible as possible to the widest range of users. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t look much further than a specific accessibility rating. It’s quite possible for an A rated site to be more accessible that a AA rated site. Take for instance a site that hits all of the priority 1 and 3 chechpoints, but misses one small priority 2 checkpoint. Such a site is likely to be more accessible that a site that hits all priority 1 and 2 checkpoints, but no priority 3 checkpoints.
  2. See above
  3. See above
  4. The only sensible answer has to be “don’t know” or more specifically can’t tell. The guidelines are called guidelines for a reason. They give you an indication of specific things that you can do to make a site more accessible. However you can’t tell if one site is more accessible than another just by their WAI or 508 rating. Accessibility is about people, not checkpoints, something that is all too often forgotten.

As I said, the questions were quite tricksy. A lot of you got very close, but I’m afraid only two of you got all of the questions correct. So I’m proud to announce that the winners on my quick accessibility quiz GMail give-away are Minz Meyer and Isofarro. Congratulations!

Comments (18)

Quick Accessibility Quiz - Now With Prizes! | July 1, 2004

Here is a quick accessibility quiz for you folks. Don't cheat and look at the WAI guidelines as that'll spoil the fun. Post your answers (with your reasoning) in the comments and I'll let you know if you're correct in a couple of days.

[Update]. I'll be offering a free GMail account to the first 3 people with the correct answers and reasoning. So far (07:36 BST on the 1/7/04) I don't think anybody has got more than 2 questions correct. The questions are a little bit tricksy so make sure you read them thoroughly before you answer. Oh and the decision of the judges (that's me btw) will be final.

Q1. To get an A rating you need to
  1. Provide an HTML equivalent for image based navigation
  2. Create a text version of the site
  3. Avoid using colour for important information
  4. None of the above
Q2. To get a AA rating you must
  1. Avoid using frames
  2. Use relative rather than absolute units
  3. Avoid deprecated tags like <b> and <i>
  4. All of the above
Q3. To get a AA rating you must also
  1. Wrap all form elements in a fieldset
  2. Make sure all tables make sense when linearized
  3. Avoid using Javascript
  4. None of the above
Q4. To get a AAA rating you must
  1. Use CSS for layout instead of tables
  2. Provide alternate navigation links at the bottom of the page
  3. Make sure all the pages share a similar design
  4. All of the above
Q5. Which site is more accessible?
  1. A site with an A rating
  2. A site with a AA rating
  3. A site with a 508 rating
  4. Don't know

Comments (44)

User Defines Style sheets and Quirks mode | September 23, 2003

I've been trying to create an accessible user style sheet based on the default style of the BBC's Betsie program. I thought this would be an easy task but it's actually been proving quite tricky.

What I want to be able to do is linearize a table based layout. To do this I've been using:

table, tr, td {
  display: block !important;

However when I tested this on a number of popular sites like Yahoo or Amazon, the layout didn't get linearized at all. In fact it ended up getting severally mangled. It turns out that these popular sites don't have a doctype. This sends my browser into quirks mode and turns the layout to jelly when viewed using my custom style sheet.

The idea behind user style sheets is to give final control to the user. Unfortunately this breaks down if the browser/site has final say about the rendering mode. With so few sites actually having doctypes, this makes creating useful user style sheets a real hurdle.

The only way I can see round this is for browser manufactures to allow people to alter the rendering mode themselves (does any browser currently do this?). Otherwise user preferences are always going to be held over a barrel by web browsers and doctype-less sites.

Comments (3)

Recent Accessibility Links | September 9, 2003

Talking about the RNIB site, while the site provides lot's of very useful information to web designers on how to make sites more accessible, the site's designers seem to have disregarded many of the RNIB's own suggestions. When the site relaunched in June, it caused a bit of a storm amongst the accessibility/CSS web logging community.

Technical problems aside, one of the main issues I have with the RNIB site is it's design. One argument I hear all the time against accessible design is that accessible sites are ugly. While this doesn't need to be so, the RNIB site does nothing to disprove this widely held belief. While it's relatively easy to teach web designers the technical methods of making a site accessible, until web designers start to see accessibility and creativity are not mutually exclusive, things will continue to be an uphill struggle.

Maybe what we need is something like the CSS Zen garden but focussing on accessibility instead.

Comments (1)