Category: accessibility

Petitioning for accessible governmental websites

Following the disappointing redesign of the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) website earlier in the year, an online petition has begun to collect signatures on the Prime Minister’s website in an attempt to highlight the issue of accessibility standards for UK Government websites.

A little background

Earlier in the year, the DTI re-launched their website after investing £200,000 to rebuild it, the requirements for which included meeting the Government’s accessibility requirements.

In December 2005, Alun Johnson of the DTI had the following response to a question from Charles Hendry, Conservative MP, regarding the level of accessibility the DTI intended to achieve:

DTI follows the Guidelines for UK Government Websites which mandate Level A of the W3C‘s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. DTI aims to go beyond this by meeting the AA standard, along with those elements of AAA which are considered best practice.”

Trade and Industry: Departmental Websites

However, the new site was launched failing even basic accessibility guidelines, hence failing to meet those standards and the requirements specified in official documentation.

Since the launch, two respected professionals in the Web community, Dan Champion and Bruce Lawson, have contacted the DTI in an attempt to ascertain how a Government body could allow such a failure to occur, and what plans are in place to rectify the situation. You can find out more on Dan’s and Bruce’s websites. Suffice to say that the DTI are lacking in useful responses, but an accessibility audit of the website is being carried out.

So, a Government body who claim to champion equal access to online services – and indeed should be attempting to do so – have instead seemingly wasted a large amount of resources and public funds on producing something that is far from adequate in the eyes of the Web design industry. And it’s only going to cost more to rectify the situation.

We the undersigned…

An important question now is one of how to ensure that the mistakes of the DTI are not repeated in other government organisations.

If you are a British citizen (or an expatriate) and think that websites launched by the UK Government should be accessible to disabled people, you can show your support by signing the online petition on the Prime Minister’s website, which has attracted over 100 signatures in its first week.

If you are a Digg.com user, you can digg the petition and help by increasing its circulation.

Updates

21 Mar 2007

The Government has dodged the point in its response to this e-petition. It’s a shame, but probably to be expected judging by the responses from the DTI concerning their website. Read more in Government responds to website accessibility e-petition.

Support for Aural Style Sheets and the CSS Speech Module

Questions concerning current support for aural CSS have come up on Accessify Forum and a couple of other places recently, so I decided to collect my knowledge of aural CSS into a single resource to share with all you lovely people.

After some discussion on the GAWDS mailing list at the end of September, I ran some tests to see whether or not there was scope for using aural CSS to control how a screen reader says different types of abbreviation. In turn, this involved determining the level of support for aural CSS properties in current software. The tests failed in JAWS and a bit of research that followed uncovered various suggestions that there is very little support out there.

So, expanding on and supplementing my notes from those tests, I have written up a page covering my knowledge of aural CSS for anyone that is interested. Perhaps having this information in one place will be useful to people:

Aural CSS: Support for CSS 2 Aural Style Sheets / CSS 3 Speech Module

If you find any of the information to be incomplete or inaccurate, please let me know so that I can update the page.

Lab Update, October 2006

This is just a quick post to say that I have updated the lab with some of my latest screen readers tests, including a series of tests investigating how screen readers pronounce certain words and phrases in different contexts.

I’ll be updating those tests with more results as I get them, and I may be persuaded to re-post here with any findings too!

Some Views on Contemporary Web Accessibility

Jeff Croft seems to have caused quite a stir on his blog: Has accessibility been taken too far? It’s even brought me out of my unintentional hiatus.

We’re all human and live in the real world. Sometimes I think we forget, distracted by a passion. Others forget that we forget, distracted by a passion. Here I discuss/ramble on about my point of view.

Warning: Potential over-use of the word “reasonable” or variants thereof.

To Jeff Croft

In part, this post replies to Has accessibility been taken too far? but comments aren’t necessarily aimed at you, so please don’t take anything to heart. I think I understand where you’re coming from, but perhaps the expection you feel is self-imposed. We’d all like to live in an ideal world, but we don’t.

I’m a freelancer, so I can’t say I really run into the world of content-driven, “maintained” websites (newspapers, etc.) regularly, although my role does shift with each project, something that keeps me interested and happy in my work.

I agree with your comment that accessibility is a “continuum”. I’ve been taught that disability is a spectrum and that people have individual and varied access needs and I maintain that point of view. It follows then that accessibility is also a spectrum.

Practical Accessibility

Accessibility is about not putting up unnecessary barriers for our audiences. That covers personal and technological barriers, right? Often, I think people consider accessibility the wrong way around. “How can I stop this barrier from causing a problem” rather than not causing a barrier in the first place. I’m not saying everyone’s like that or that it’s always practical to avoid causing a barrier in the first place, but I do think that the way we approach accessibility strongly affects how we feel about it and can cause animosity for the subject. And it can sometimes seem like small things Web designers could all be doing that can make a big impact are being avoided for little reason.

As a Web professional footnote 1, I do what I am able to do within imposed constraints, and I can do little more – sounds reasonable to me. The important thing to me is that I know what I do makes some difference. In my mind, Web accessibility has never been forced – ignore the legal (non-)issue for now. Web accessibility has certainly never been black and white. I try to build accessible sites because I know I can and think I should. I may not always achieve it, but at least I try.

Before we start any project, we find out what’s important to that project considering the constraints imposed on it. For some projects, accessibility means we simply code how we’ve learnt to code. For me, that’s well-structured, semantic markup with separate presentation and behavioural layers. And yes, checking boxes to a certain extent. Other projects we are free to think a little more about what we are doing, allowing us to add extras. But I don’t see anyone forcing us to provide alternatives to video content to pass a Priority 3 WCAG checkpoint if the time or money just isn’t there – but only to consider it if the resources are there.

One site I maintain has a small number of video clips that I have attempted to transcribe and describe. They aren’t very long clips, so adding this little extra was reasonably quick. I may not have done the best job in the world doing it, but I followed some tips and at least it’s something. A site with a greater amount of multimedia content should consider the accessibility of their content. If the required resources to make the content more accessible are not there, they can’t really do it. I’d like to see YouTube try accessifying their content! Reasonable? No. They have no real control over their user-base and I cannot see them imposing compulsary audio descriptions on their users! The point is, I guess, that the time and money should be there and factored in. In the business world though, it’s probably just not important enough, which is certainly a shame, but that’s the way it is, at least until a viable solution is developed.

If a project requires that the site support older browsers with limited features, we do it. If text on a site doesn’t resize in IE6 with default settings, we shouldn’t be punishing a userbase because of limitations or complex settings in a browser. It doesn’t mean that you cannot use pixel units at all (elastic versus fixed-width layout), but if you have the time to ensure resizing the text doesn’t break things too badly, then great. Setting relative font-sizes that work isn’t difficult and a design doesn’t have to be pixel-perfect when the text is resized. Ignore simple enhancements if you wish, but just be careful sometimes – there’s not always an alternative solution that works well.

Frustration

We all know it – accessibility is frustrating. We’d all like to live in that ideal world where accessibility is a given, but we don’t. It’s frustrating that the Web has so much potential but seemingly mainstream Web design is only just waking up to that.

It’s frustrating that, with all the things that good Web designers and developers do, our efforts are still not as useful as they could be because of adolescent accessibility in other areas, most recognisably of which in our industry is software and operating systems.

I think there’s pressure in the Web industry (at least in the blog-reading world) to include the latest techniques or tools in our sites, accessible or otherwise. Techniques are to be used where appropriate and tools are just that – tools, not requirements. I’d love to implement a zoom layout, and I’ve been meaning to since @media 2005. I just don’t have the time – heck, my blog posts haven’t been published in over two months because I just haven’t had the time to get beyond the half-written drafts I have sat on my hard drive – a personal constraint. I try not to let myself be affected by “professional” pressure in my work. I get on with it, I make a living and I try my utmost to make my work accessible to whatever extent is practical.

Perhaps we need to learn to give ourselves and our peers a break from time to time. Accessibility shouldn’t feel like a burden and we shouldn’t feel like giving up on accessibility. It’s a worthwhile and achievable goal.

Passion

I don’t like the word “zealot” and the implied excessiveness or irrationality. The word “passionate” seems more reasonable. OK, some people may have a few screws loose (I couldn’t even name names if I wanted to) but heck, we’re all human. Over the last few years, accessibility has become a passion for me. I just try to be objective about it. Or perhaps I’m just too nice to get overly vocal about it.

Innovation

A discussion seems to raise its head from time to time when people hit a stumbling block and say accessibility stifles design, or stifles innovation. It cropped up a couple of years ago:

As you’ll gather from my comments on the Accessify Forum discussion, I don’t agree. Accessibility poses a challenge to the creative; designers, developers, engineers… I’ve seen a lot of great work and research come about from thinking about accessibility and using it as a baseline for innovation.

People might also be interested to read an article supporting accessible innovation published last year on Digital Web: Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility.

The Electronic Curb-Cut Effect makes another interesting read, showing how products inspired by accessibility throughout history have become successful in the mainstream.

Footnotes

  1. I’m not a designer, more a developer, but I would perhaps say I’m both, but not all the time – you get the picture. Perhaps not being of any one of these works to my advantage though as far as accessibility is concerned. Back to footnote 1 source

Designing Websites with Consideration for People with Cognitive Impairments and Learning Difficulties: Researching Some Solutions

Today is Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day. I learnt something today while frying some pancakes at tea-time; bananas do not fry. They melt, then melt some more and end up a big pile of goop.

Something I have been learning on a more long-term basis is how to design websites while considering people with cognitive impairments and learning difficulties, an aspect of Web accessibility that designers seem to forget about sometimes. Recently, I have been on the look out for more resources on this topic. Here are a few things I have found.

There have been some notable articles and discussions over the past couple of weeks, which I have found insightful. At the end of January, Gez Lemon posted an overview of a recent article published by Web Usability called “An Accessibility Frontier: Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties” (by Roger Hudson, Russ Weakley and Peter Firminger). It provides some useful advice and examples, but should not be used as definitive solutions. I don’t think there are any definitive solutions.

While researching, I have found something that I have not seen publicised very much, possibly because it may be a little old now. Mencap (the leading UK charity working with and for people with a learning disability) have a publication called “Am I making myself clear?” (first printed in 2000 and last reprinted in 2002), which gives some advice about how to write with consideration for people with cognitive impairments and learning difficulties.

This guide is available from the Accessibility category of Mencap’s online publications library. It’s free from copyright and so is freely distributable. Mencap’s website is a little too dependent on JavaScript for my liking, so here is a direct link to the (rather large) download: “Am I making myself clear?” (PDF, 947 KB). Mencap have also published a guide to making websites easy to use for people with a learning disability called “Making your website accessible” (PDF, 81.7 KB).

I’ve noted that Mr Olsson and Mr Wellock are in the process of assembling a nice resource. I look forward to the release of this nearer the summer.

What I Have Learned So Far

There’s quite a lot you can do to make content more accessible and accommodate people with cognitive disabilities or learning difficulties. However, it is debatable whether or not such measures are always necessary. Writing content in the simplest language possible is a good start, but it may not always be appropriate to do so.

You can supplement paragraphs of text with an appropriate image. In my opinion, this is not something that should be forced. If an idea for a supporting photo or graphic comes to mind then fine, but otherwise, you might just be making things worse, not better! If you aim for one or two main points per paragraph, your content stands a better chance of being understood. The thing to remember is that such images are not decorative. They should have purpose and be part of the content, not displayed via CSS.

Similarly, information can be supported by audio or even video. However, facilitating understanding through such enhancements is not required in many situations and is often out of range for the majority of project budgets. Making video accessible for the Web is a minefield in itself, so I won’t go into that. I have my reservations about supplementary audio, but I will cover that in the second part of this article, “Thinking About More Advanced Solutions”.

Web accessibility can be strengthened through providing options. A variety of style-switcher methods can be used to give users the chance to configure a website to better suit their individual preferences. Offering a choice of font sizes, font types, colour combinations, layouts, etc through flexible use of CSS can help make your websites more accessible. But, to borrow a phrase used by Patrick H. Lauke, the onus is also on the user. In other words, the functionality offered by style-switchers can often be found as features in modern browsers and users should be able to familiarise themselves with their browser enough to make style-switchers redundant. There is more discussion along these lines on Accessify Forum.

Some Other Resources

Here are some other slightly older resources that I’ve used:

Where Now?

As yet, I haven’t really developed an approach to implementing the techniques discussed in these resources. However, I have taken the advice on board and have begun to pay more attention to such issues when building a site. Gradually, through trying out different techniques and assessing their effectiveness, making content easier to understand might come naturally.

I would like to get more of a “feel” for this. How do others view the techniques mentioned in these articles? Do any of you use a specific approach to accommodate users with cognitive disabilities?

Updates

3 Mar 2005

Also worth a mention is the Plain English Campaign and the free guides they publish on their website. One guide in particular gives some advice on building clear websites, but nothing particularly new for most designers.

I have also found some information at the Easy Info project. It’s not the most accessible of websites, but some of the information is helpful and the site seems to be kept up to date.

18 Apr 2005

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about posting more on this. I’ve just been too busy to finish writing it up. It’s a complicated topic and I’m finding it quite difficult to research, but I hope to write more soon. In the meantime, WebAIM‘s information on Cognitive Disabilities is very useful. Also, Gez Lemon is a great thinker in this area and his posts make very interesting reading.

20 Oct 2006

I have fixed broken links and made minor updates to the text.

12 Apr 2007

Further fixes to broken links.

out-law.com Website Compliance Seminar

I got up at 5.30am today to head over to Manchester on the train to attend the Website Compliance breakfast seminar organised by out-law.com. It was odd for me to be up before dawn – it only really dawned on me (no pun intended) just how early it was when it began to get light after over an hour of sitting on the train.

Anyway, the train was half an hour late (aren’t they always?) and so I missed the beginning of the seminar. Luckily it had started later than advertised anyway, so I hadn't missed much. It was nice to have identified Accessify Forum regular Patrick H Lauke (a.k.a. redux) when I arrived and meet someone from the forum.

I was pleased to find the hosts from Masons Solicitors, the law firm behind out-law.com, were well-informed and gave a good overview of the legal issues surrounding e-commerce. Obviously, I was interested in what they had to say about accessibility, and with the seminar having a focus on legislation, I was hoping that they would be accurate and informative.

Top marks to them for clearly emphasising that fact that a website constitutes a service and are covered by Part III of the DDA which has been in force since October 1999. They further emphasised that websites do not come under the heading of “physical access” and therefore are not affected by Part IV of the DDA which came into force this month. Either way, it’s all a bit academic now that the October 2004 deadline has passed!

Another thing to note is that there was not one utterance of “Bobby” throughout the entire seminar – not even in a room full of suits.

After the seminar, another member of Accessify Forum came over and introduced himself – Nathan Briggs (a.k.a. vigo). I wasn’t sure how many people from the forum were going to turn up – I already knew that Patrick would be there – so it was nice to find that someone else had made it to the seminar as well.

On leaving Masons, we found ourselves on a mission to find an open cafe so that we could sit and have a chat over coffee. We finally found a little cafe called History – a nice little place with a poster outside with Arnie saying “You’ll be back!” – I remember thinking that there was no way I’d find this place again!

The three of us talked about some current projects, standards and accessibility (duh!), general nonsense and a variety of tangents! I think I may have spawned an idea for another of Patrick’s experiments – another Firefox extension.

We were discussing some of my recent thoughts on sonification of Web content and the possibility of rendering in surround sound, when Patrick came up with an idea for converting markup elements into pitches. This differs from my thoughts so far in that I have been considering how the content of documents could be converted to sound rather than the markup. Coming from a musical background, I guess I really should have thought of that – an HTML score! Anyway, I’d be interested to see what Patrick manages to cook up from that. I really must get around to my own experimentation with Firefox extensions!

On other thoughts, Nathan and I chatted some more over a coffee at Manchester Piccadilly station before heading back home. I put forward my thoughts on starting a resource on best practices in Web Design aimed at business executives. It would be an attempt to educate businesses on what they should be expecting from their website design teams and/or consultants. I’m not saying that business executives don’t know anything about Web Design, but I am convinced that there is a need for something like what I have in mind.

The seminar we had just been to was actually quite good at aiming at this sort of audience. Personally, I find myself getting too technical when talking about anything related to Web Design, so I’m looking to get input from a variety of sources to try to get points across in plain language. The resource wouldn’t be aimed at Web developers, but I guess it could be useful to them in explaining issues to people who really don’t know about Web Design.

Perhaps I will write about this in another entry – this one is already quite long! Projects, projects, projects! Lots of ideas and not enough time – or space on my brain drive.