Accessibility For All

8 Dec

Web accessibility: one of the big topics in web design circles this year. If you’ve been living on Mars with Elvis for the last 18 months or so then web accessibility is the process of ensuring a website is accessible to users with a disability. In the UK, it is the law that business websites must be accessible.

I wrote an article awhile ago on my feelings that web accessibility wasn’t truly inclusive. There are big pushes within the design community to work on the easy side of web accessibility (providing accessible content to those with a physical or sensory disabiity such as Motor Neurone Disease or blindness) but there is little input about the more challenging side of web accessibility (providing accessible content to users with a learning or perceptual disability such as autism).

At first glance it might appear to be a simple impossibility. After all you cannot make someone understand. It might also seem totally idealistic – we should just accept that those users with a learning/perceptual disabilty cannot be effectively catered to and stop trying to force the issue.

Firstly, to some extent, I agree. It is simply impossible as far as I know to make someone with profound brain damage understand beyond their potential. However, what we must realise is that just as not all physical disabilities mean the same solution, not all learning/perceptual disabilities have to be excluded due to their overall pigeonholing. Autism is not the same as brain damage. Downs Syndrome is not the same as Dyslexia. It is not logical or necessary to ignore accessibility for all people with learning disabilities because some of the people that definition encompasses are profoundly mentally handicapped beyond the ability to comprehend.

I believe that it is definitley possible to apply a series of design principles to provide accessible content to this user group but we first have to admit that we are working under some stern limitations.

One of those limitations is the WCAG. Its my contention that by and large the guidelines give precedence to accomodating users with a physical/sensory disability and this precedence is by and large carried through by designers who have (quite rightly) started learning how to make a page accessible. An example is how Flash is percieved. Going by WCAG 1.0, Flash is not accessible at all. Macromedia have worked hard to give Flash the ability to pass Section 508 (the US law covering accessibility) but the truth is that accessibility using Flash is pretty much reliant on what software configuration the end user has installed. Thats not to knock Macromedia – something is better than nothing – but accessiblity as laid down by the WCAG 1.0 can’t truly be said to have been met when content is displayed in Flash.

A closer examination of the full WCAG 1.0 checklist reveals (in my interpretation) a few checkpoints that either support or hinder the ability to provide accessible content to users with a learning/perceptual disability.

For:

14.1 Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site’s content.

12.3 Divide large blocks of information into more manageable groups where natural and appropriate.

14.2 Supplement text with graphic or auditory presentations where they will facilitate comprehension of the page.

Against:

3.1 When an appropriate markup language exists, use markup rather than images to convey information.

7.3 Until user agents allow users to freeze moving content, avoid movement in pages.

Its important to explain why I feel the ‘againsts’ are harmful to the idea of providing accessible content to users with a learning/perceptual disability. Firstly, checkpoints 14.2 and 3.1 seem to me to contradict each other to some degree. Overriding that though is my belief that pictoral and animated content can be integral to providing accessible content to users with a learning/perceptual disability.

What we do as designers is provide (hopefully) an interface to content. Something that helps someone to use the content and that stays out of the way when not needed. Obviously thats not all we do but thats one of the basic tenets of web design. Therefore we share certain core design goals with other non-web interface designers such as multimedia designers who design DVD menu’s or the designers who design TV screen layouts for news programs (there’s a lot more on the screen these days than just a talking head reading an autocue). I’m not pretending these examples work in the exact same way as the interface to a web site but they all share common goals (how to get a user to the content that they want to get to and how to present it to them once they have found it) and therefore maybe they share (or should share) certain methods.

My 4 year old daughter is a big fan of the kids TV show Bear in the Big Blue House (its the sniffing!) and so we bought her a few DVD’s. One of the things I find fascinating (I should explain that my daughter is severley autistic) is how she uses the interface of the DVD to get to the content. Autistic people indulge heavily in ‘rewind moments’ during which a few second burst of the DVD (or videotape) is watched, rewound, watched, rewound and so on and so on. This behaviour can go on for hours sometimes. Megan has become an adept at manipulating the interface of her Bear DVD’s to get at the content she wants to rewind (usually the sniffing!).

Two things are very striking about how this has affected her interface browsing habits. Firstly, she only seems to find it necessary to deliberate at the junctures where there are text-only options to base decisions on. When she drills down to the scene choices, which are represented by either little animated snippets of the scene or still pictures she makes the decision instantly and confidently. Over time she has learnt the text-only options by rote so the deliberation process is considerably lessened.

Secondly, she has learnt to transfer these decision making skills where pictoral and animation menu’s are presented to her to other DVD’s. On DVD’s where there are no pictoral or animatory menu options she doesn’t learn the interface as easily or quickly.

It would be a mistake to infer the behaviour of a whole group of people based solely on one persons experiences but that doesn’t negate the fact that there does seem to be something to the idea that pictoral or animatory interfaces can aid the speed and confidence of browsing. Its something that I intend to follow up as much as possible.

The difficulty is/will be attempting to meet these needs whilst still adhering to web and accessibility standards. I hope to be able to bring some ideas to fruition in this respect too.

4 Responses to “Accessibility For All”

  1. Phil Baines December 8, 2004 at 16:01 #

    Hi, nice to see that someone is thinking about accessibility in more than just a ‘cater-for-blind-people’ way. Just as a side point, I also see accessibility as being more than just catering for disabilities. It also covers other means of accessing the content of your website, such as a person trying to get to your site with a PDA. A website can also be made ‘accessible’ to this type of user.

    Regarding: “3.1 When an appropriate mark-up language exists, use mark-up rather than images to convey information.” – I have always thought that this means you shouldn’t substitute actual marked-up content with images, not a recommendation to leave images out of it all together.

    For example: Your website is selling a product, so it is natural to include a picture of a product on the site. You wouldn’t have a whole page of content dedicated to describing how it looked.

    But on the other hand, when it came to displaying a potentially complicated table of details about the product, it would be best to mark this up with a TABLE (and related tags), rather than drop an image onto the page that can not be read by a screen reader of mobile device.

    That’s just the way I read it through. I think that these guidelines would benefit a lot if they gave example of them in a real life situation. It is well known that the best way of teaching is to state a principle (these guidelines) and then give an example of that principle in action.

  2. Kev December 9, 2004 at 09:39 #

    Your clarification makes a lot of sense to me Phil and I completley agree that better examples or the checkpoints being worded better would be very useful!

  3. Bob Regan January 31, 2005 at 01:30 #

    Terrific post. You raise some really important points. Many within the WCAG are painfully aware of the shortcomings represented within the checkpoints themselves. It is a really tough problem. This reflects a couple of problems faced by the WCAG committee itself. First, there is a paucity of knowledge about cognitive disabilities and technology. In many cases, there is an underlying assumption in the WCAG that the research surrounding each disability is reflected in the assistive technologies used by each group. As a result, the focus is often on technical interoperability between web content (and web applications) and the AT. User based issues of practice are more difficult to capture and deliver in guidelines. This is largely why the checkpoints themselves are at times somewhat contradictory. The working group knew it was important, but at times struggled with what the precise details of the checkpoints should be. This struggle is ongoing today in the effort to arrive at a second generation of the WCAG.

  4. Kev January 31, 2005 at 13:58 #

    @Bob: “It is a really tough problem.”

    Indeed it is. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the WCAG are vital to increasing accessibility but as you more than most must know, they currently don’t utilise resources (such as the SWF file format) that they could.

    I’d love to have a piece of code like:


    #someDiv {
    background: url(myMovie.swf);
    }

    That I could use to present Flash content to users who would benefit from it. I can see the inherent issues but it would still be a great solution 🙂

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