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Fw: Accessibility humanized

From: david poehlman <david.poehlman@handsontechnologeyes.com>
Date: Sat, 21 Aug 2004 08:34:46 -0400
Message-ID: <001801c4877b$3eaf9cc0$6401a8c0@DAVIDPC>
To: "wai-ig list" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>


Accessibility humanized
A user-centred approach to web accessibility

GUUUI, ISSUE 09 - JANUARY 2004

Most web developers act in blindness when they design accessible
websites,
since they know next to nothing about disabled people and the
technology
they use. Accessibility guidelines and validation tools doesn't provide
this
insight. Accessibility should rather be approached from a user centred
perspective.

In a governmental health care project, we had both an accessibility
consultant and a blind person evaluating a website. The accessibility
expert
ran the site through a systematic validation and found "6 priority 1
errors"
and "8 priority 2 errors." This gave the site the lowest evaluation
possible: "A bad website in terms of accessibility." Our blind
accessibility
tester evaluated the site with his screen reader and was fairly
pleased. He
praised the site for being well-structured and didn't find any severe
accessibility problems, though he had problems here and there. While
the
outcomes of the two tests were disturbingly different, it was even more
disturbing that most of the problems that the blind tester found didn't
attract the attention of the accessibility consultant.

There may be many explanations to the different results. One is that
meeting
the letter of accessibility requirements might not be the most
important
thing when designing web sites, which are well-functioning for people
with
disabilities.

The potential of accessibility

The Internet is a gift from above to people all over the world. For
disabled
people, the potential of the Internet is particularly remarkable. It
opens
a
whole new world of opportunity and independence to them.

Disabled people are able to access websites using inventive assistive
devices, which help them overcome their disabilities. This includes
sites,
which don't comply with the official accessibility requirements. But
badly
designed web sites can make it quite tedious - and in the worst cases
impossible - for disabled people to access its content.

With a little thought, web developers can improve the online life of
disabled people remarkable. Adding text alternatives to images make the
world in difference. Imagine a blind person using a screen reader
having to
listen to all the file names of the images with no text alternative:

graphic right underscore corner dot gif graphic spacer dot gif graphic
left
underscore corner dot gif welcome to john smith's website graphic pict
5 9
4
9 3 0 8 5 dot jpeg graphic spacer dot gif...

Adding text alternatives to pictures and leaving them blank for images
used
solely for visual design, the page would read like this:

welcome to john smith's web site graphic picture of me eating a
hotdog...

Much more comprehensible.

Approaching accessibility

Since most web developers have no idea of how disabled people
experience
websites, they grope in the dark when trying to design accessible web
sites.
Knowing nothing about disabled people and the tools they use, they lack
two
of the most vital prerequisites of good design: knowledge of the media
and
knowledge of the audience.

Most developers resort to official accessibility guidelines such as the
World Wide Web Consortium's ( W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
(
WCAG), and relies on validation tools, such as
Bobby. The rationale is that "If I follow these guidelines and Bobby is
happy with me, this site will be usable for disabled people" - or just
"...then I got my arse covered."

While guidelines and validation tools can be very useful tools, they
cannot
replace human expertise. In spite of all good intentions, guidelines
are by
nature vague and require interpretation and testing when put into
practice.

Even if you adhere to the accessibility guidelines, you can still screw
things up. Recall our previous screen reader example. If John Smith
chose
to
meet the letter of the WCAG Guideline 1, which tells him to add text
alternatives to all images, we could end up with something like this:

graphic left blue corner graphic blue spacer used to add white space
graphic
right blue corner welcome to john smith's website graphic picture of me
eating hotdog...

Fortunately, most web developers know that they should leave a text
alternative blank, if the image is used solely for visual design.

Disabilities and their accommodations

There is no way we can make disabled peoples experience of the web
equivalent to that of non-disabled people. What we can do is to make it
less
tedious within their particular field of experience.

Some disabilities are quite simple to accommodate. Since the web is
mostly
a
visual media, the obstacles of deaf and hard-of-hearing are minor.
Other
disabilities are, in practice, impossible to accommodate. For people
with
learning disabilities reading is the biggest problem, and there is no
proven
way to make textual websites accessible to people who cannot read well.

And then there are technological "disabilities", which people using
antique
hardware or mobile phones with tiny screens suffer from. Some purists
will
claim that accessibility counts for everybody in any imaginative
situation.
But technological "impairments" are in most cases self-imposed and can
be
changed - severe physical impairments can't. Designing a good-looking
web
site, which is truly universally accessible for all kinds of inventive
devices, is almost impossible.

The disability groups that we can and should accommodate are colour
blind
people, mobility impaired people, people with low vision, and blind
people.
Unfortunately, it's outside the scope of this article to present you to
the
ways that these disability groups experience the web and how to
accommodate
them. Fortunately, others have already done that. I can strongly
recommend
you to read Joe Clark's book, Building Accessible Websites, which will
give
you a head start. He explains web accessibility in a very engaging way
and
has tips on how to make websites accessible on basic, intermediate, and
advanced levels. If you want more, read Mark Pilgrim's
Dive Into Accessibility. His book starts out with a gallery of
fictitious
disabled internet users, which will give you an idea of how disabled
people
experience the web. Both books are available online.

Designing and testing accessibility

Designing websites for disabled people is essentially no different from
designing websites for non-disabled people. It requires knowledge of
technological possibilities and limitations and knowledge of the users
and
their needs. Without this knowledge, you are designing in blindness.

Reading books about accessibility is a good start, just like it's a
good
start reading web design books when designing for non-disable people.
They
provide you with a basic knowledge of the problems that disabled people
face
and practical advice on how to accommodate them.

If you are starting from scratch, it might be tempting to hire
accessibility
consultants to guide you and run screenings of your work. But be
careful.
Some of them - even experts from highly estimated consultancies - will
simply throw lots of accessibility guidelines at you (including the
ones
they make up themselves) and run sites through validation tools, which
are
available online for free or can be bought for a fraction of their fee.
You
can do that just as well yourself. Then it's better to make contact
with
some experienced internet users with disabilities, whom you can consult
when
needed.

If you want guarantees that a website is well-designed for people with
disabilities, you have to run usability tests with disabled people.
Some
consultancies offer such tests. You can also choose to run the tests
yourself. Most disabled web users will be glad to help you out. You can
always adjust the number of tests and tests participants to your budget
and
time scale. Having a single disabled user evaluate a site is not
optimal,
but can still be quite an eye-opening experience.

And then we have the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which will
cover
our arses.
Received on Saturday, 21 August 2004 12:34:13 UTC

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