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Blogging Against Disablism Day: making websites accessible

01 May 2007

Blogging against disablism logoThis October, the UK's Disability Rights Commission will be subsumed into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. One body will bring together the work that has previously been carried out in the DRC, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

For me, there's a fundamental difference about the work the DRC does. While it's true that people with disabilities face prejudice (as do many people by virtue of their race, gender or sexuality), there are also many people with disabilities who are disadvantaged through technology.

The web is a good example of this. It's not difficult to eliminate the most common problems that people experience when using assistive devices. For example, you should provide alternative text for pictures so that screen readers can read a description out loud for blind people. You should make sure your site can be navigated using the keyboard, so that people who can't control a mouse can still get in. You should make sure that your fonts are legible and can be enlarged with the browser settings. You shouldn't use colour to convey meaning. There are extensive checklists published by the Web Accessibility Initiative. They can look daunting, but most are common sense and just fixing the top priorities would help a lot of people access your content.

The DRC has done some valuable work over the last few years investigating web accessibility. Although it has been supportive of the WAI guidelines, its own usability lab tests found that many of the problems encountered in usability tests weren't addressed by the WAI checkpoints. That helped to change the industry perception from one of 'ticking the boxes' to one of 'making sites useable for every audience'. The DRC also developed an accessible flash game and co-published a guide to commissioning accessible websites.

I very much hope that the integrated CEHR is able to dedicate the same resource and expertise to tackling the technical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having equal opportunities.

There is still a long way to go in web accessibility. When using Blogger's image upload function for the first time today, I was shocked that it didn't prompt me for an ALT tag. The blogspot templates are mostly reasonably accessible, but the blogs stop being accessible as soon as anyone posts any images. Mad.

I also visited a website for work today which used two different colours to distinguish between content that did and did not require registration. This was a business that had probably paid handsomely for a website that some would argue contravenes disability discrimination law.

Most web 2.0 services present accessibility problems too. Shouldn't we be more worried that significant members of our society are being shut out of the conversation?

For most of us the internet is a luxury. We might depend on it, but we'd cope without. For some people with disabilities, the web has literally changed their lives. For the first time, some will have the opportunity to do their own shopping and banking. Deaf-blind people can receive the news the same time as the rest of us and join in the debate at the same time too. But only if sites are well designed.

There is a payback for the site owners too. Not only will they win the custom of people with disabilities, but they will also find their accessible sites index better in search engines and perform better on mobile devices. As I've been playing with the Nintendo DS browser lately, I've found accessible sites work like a dream.

So who is to blame for inaccessible sites? Many businesses will be unaware of their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure services are accessible, and others will shirk that responsibility. Ultimately, the site owner is responsible for the experience it provides, and is the party who reaps the rewards of making the site useable.

But I blame lazy designers. I worked on a major website project some years back where the bidders all promised they could build us an accessible site. When I questioned something our chosen provider had built which was inaccessible, they replied 'how many of your readers are blind, though?'.

It's 2007. We've been talking about accessibility for years and yet we still see broken sites launching. Anyone who sells website designs should understand the importance of accessibility and should fit it as standard. It's part of the design challenge, not an optional extra. All those people who are clever enough to invent web 2.0 services should be smart enough to make them work for everyone. All those people selling corporate websites owe it to their clients to make sure everyone can access them, and to explain what they're doing and why.

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I've noticed a few problems with blogger which is why I use WordPress. Out of the box it's very good and as long as you don't muck it up yourself by applying an inaccessible template or typing inaccessible content then it'll stay pretty good.

Broken sites are still the norm, a lot of it is ignorance, some is deliberate. It would help no end if browsers wouldn't try and fix incorrect sites. You'd soon see developers playing ball then.
Aha! You just answered a question that's been bugging me. A number of bloggers who use Blogger write detailed descriptions of all the images at the bottom of each post. I was wondering why they did that, why they didn't just use "alt" tags. Now I know. (I don't use Blogger, so I don't know what it looks like to compose a post in it.)

Thanks for clearing that up!

I stumbled on your blog and found it refreshing to find someone who cares!

As a totally blind computer user, I constantly come across inaccessible sites. One in particular relates to my business and is very necessary for me to
access, but is totally ruled by graphics. I've gone to many lengths to educate them, explain that I am not getting the benefits from my membership, and
have even sent them steps about how to remedy their site to make it accessible to all. But nothing has happened, and in Australia, the DDA isn't powerful
enough to make them take action.

I also have two websites that I manage myself. I, too, use word press as blogger has some problems. But even then, I have to use html code instead of some
of the keystrokes, as these dont' always work. Also, tools like google analytics are inaccessible to me, so I can't get comprehensive feedback on visitors
to my sites, as everyone else does. You'd think google would know better, but perhaps not.   

PS Thanks for turning off the verification requirement, which I've found often doesn't work in blogger for those of us who have to listen!
Thank you all for you feedback.

Thanks for your persistence too, Janet. Janet emailed me to tell me that the word verification on blog comments was inaccessible for her. I've switched it off now to ensure everyone can comment here.

I find it incredible that people are unwilling to make small changes to enable everyone to have equal access to technology, particularly when asked to do so by someone who is blind and who can explain the problem and demonstrate why it’s important. Google Analytics is a good example of the new wave of sites that use AJAX technologies to update the page without refreshing it. These sites cause massive accessibility problems for people with a range of different needs. People using screen magnifiers often can’t see what’s been updated because it’s outside the part they’re viewing. People using screenreaders have great difficulties because they’re using a linear interface to access content that could be changing anywhere along the line.

There is a misconception that making an accessible site means compromising on its design. But there’s no reason why Google Analytics couldn’t include a more accessible table output, or the option to download an accessible spreadsheet. Indeed, there is already an option to download a spreadsheet and text format report, only the link to do so uses javascript (inaccessible) and seems to be buried in lots of other links (inaccessible). There’s no reason why sites like Tadalist and Twitter can’t provide simple forms-based versions of their content either so that they can be used on all HTML-compliant devices. It’s just that designers don’t take it seriously enough. I’m particularly disappointed in Google (which also owns blogger) because they have enough smart people and resources to get it right, if only they considered it a priority.
With regard to stats, Wordpress has a plugin called ShortStats that I find endlessly entertaining. I just went and checked it and whilst it's not brilliant, it validates and passes the level 1 automated checks. My only problem with it is I'm not 100% sure what all of it means especially with the RSS figures which look a bit odd to me.

Otherwise, things are improving slowly and the Open Source Community seem to be more on the ball than others. I recently started using SMF forum for clients and that has a link you can press to speak the Captcha which is pretty cool for sighted visitors as well as blind. Some of these things are darn near impossible to read no matter how good your sight is.
That's so true. I am lucky to have near-perfect sight with glasses, and I often have to enter the captcha several times before I get it right.

The tool ought to be smart enough to let you have it if you're close enough - for example if you guess a 1 (one) instead of an l (letter) or enter a letter S instead of number 5. They could even eliminate confusing characters by just removing numbers for captcha codes and making them synonymous with letters they resemble.

Automated spammers don't even bother trying to guess using today's OCR technology, so captcha systems can afford to relax the rules a bit in the interests of better usability.

It's a bit more work to implement, but not much:
* remove numbers from captcha code creation and confusing letters such as I (i)
* make similar looking characters synonyms for each other (eg 1=l,5=S, 8=B, 0=O, also 1=i, i=l, I=l)
* check entered codes for synonyms
Thank you for your comment. You made some valid points yourself; I never thought about this, as I can see. I guess even disabled, we still have a lot to learn about each other.
Regarding Ajax, I think there's something chicken-and-egg about it. There's nothing inherent in Ajax that prevents it working with a screen reader. I can well imagine a browser for the blind that captures AJAX-triggered changes to the DOM, and reports them as speech.

But AJAX needs to be widespread before said application is worth developing; that application needs to exist before AJAX is suitable for the blind. Catch-22.

For a while, there'll be the "underpowered portable device" market, for which text only versions of sites are made (e.g. the mobile version of gmail). Those are accessible almost as a side effect. What happens when mobile devices get more powerful?
Thanks for your comment, John.

AJAX sites can be made accessible today, but developers don't bother. That's the real problem.

There's no reason why Blogger, Twitter and Tadalist shouldn't work fine with any web-enabled platform - they're just text entry applications, which amount to HTML forms. But the presentation layer stops them from working, and that's been put on top without regard for how it will affect users of assistive devices.

Technology will eventually catch up, and will enable current AJAX sites to work much better with assistive devices. But why should people have to wait ten years for a technical solution to what is essentially a design problem?

Designers that use AJAX features should be aware of how they stop some people participating and should implement workarounds from the outset to make them accessible. It's the designer's job to create something that people can use. It's a cop-out to achieve that by excluding demographics that are difficult to cater for.
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