Accessibility, a grumpy old man

I am passionate about accessibility but recently I have begun to feel like accessibility issues are holding the whole sector back.

I don’t know if it is just me but the issue of web accessibility is really hacking me off at the moment. From WCAG 2.0 to AJAX and speech browsers, the subject of accessibility seems to be all doom and gloom. It’s beginning to feel like an old man constantly grumbling about the new trendy young kids on the block.

Anybody who reads this blog or listens to the boagworld podcast knows I am passionate about accessibility. I believe that website owners and designers have a moral obligation to make their sites as accessible as possible. However recently I have begun to feel like accessibility issues are holding the whole sector back.

First of all we find out that all the cool AJAX stuff flying about at the moment has serious problems when used in conjunction with speech browsers. Then last night I was interviewing Aral Balkan for an upcoming podcast and he was telling me about how exciting flash is these days. Although he was sharing some incredible stuff I couldn’t get that grumpy old man’s voice out of my head moaning about the associated cost of accessibility.

Then as if to add insult to injury we learn that the next generation of web accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) are almost impossible to interpret and even harder to implement.

It almost makes you want to give up and go back to the bad old days where we all ignored accessibility. After all the WCAG 2.0 guidelines now kindly allow me to create a baseline for all the sites explaining that none of the cool stuff is accessible and still allowing me to be compliant!

In my opinion a lot of the problems revolve around deficiencies in user agents such as speech browsers. They are simply not sophisticated enough to deal with the new techniques and approaches that are emerging. Of course even if they were to improve the cost of upgrading would, for many, be prohibitive.

It’s an interesting dilemma. Should progress be held back because accessibility concerns? What do you think?

  • http://sonspring.com/ Nathan Smith

    I agree that assistive technologies seem to be left by the wayside, in our new-found obsession with JavaScript and all things asynchronous. Screen reader software is being blamed for not keeping pace with the industry, but the dust hasn’t even settled around Ajax, so there really is not yet a clear-cut way to handle on-the-fly changes to the DOM. So, what do I think? I’m not sure, but agree that it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Jorge Pinon

    To me, accessibility issues are closely related to browser compatibility issues. Moral issues and government laws add much more weight to accessibility, of course, but in a similar way designers and developers have to balance the advantages of using the latest technologies with excluding a segment of the potential audience.
    New technologies like CSS, and now AJAX, will always be further ahead of browsers and screen readers simply because the learning/implementation curve on the designers side will always outpace the product development and release cycles on the browser/screen reader side. They will be in perpetual catch-up mode. We as designers will always have to deal with this situation.
    The shame is that the W3C should be helping the situation rather than making it worse.
    These kids today with their hair styles, their AJAX and their punk rock music! (sorry).

  • http://www.mondaybynoon.com Jon

    I’d have to agree — many people hear ‘accessibility’ and can’t be bothered. Perhaps they’ve never seen a situation in which the accessibility of any particular site is really put to good use. Maybe the development work they’ve done has never had to take into account any accessibility guidelines.
    I don’t think that progress should be held back by accessibility concerns. After all, new technologies must survive the test of time and outlast their ‘fad’ stage in order to be seriously looked at as an established technique. Accessibility guidelines shouldn’t be re-examined and updated each time a new technology is in the spotlight. If the technology proves to be useful and acceptable, I think it is at that time some serious accessibility notes can be taken.
    To borrow what Nathan had mentioned above, the dust surrounding Ajax is far from settled, and it is that’s because there isn’t a clear cut way to handle on-the-fly changes to the DOM.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Although you are all right about the dust only just settling around AJAX I would point out that the technologies that make it work have been around for years. Surely the user agents should have started to properly address support for Javascript.

  • Simon Brookes

    Surely the key words here are pragmatism and compromise. Yes, let’s try and make sure that the websites and applications we develop are as accessible as possible – I totally agree with Paul’s view that we are morally obliged to do so. However, when making decisions about whether we should use new, and often less accessible technologies, I believe we also have to seriously consider other factors (depending on the sector) such as business profitability, site usability, customer experience etc. If a site you are developing would benefit from the inclusion of a wizzy AJAX interface (i.e. improve the customer experience for the majority of you/your client’s users, which in turn might lead to higher turnover and profit) then surely there are strong business arguments for using it? Maybe we would have to provide a more accessible alternative but surely that is the compromise that we have to make sometimes. There are numerous examples of where this happens outside of the online world. Just this Saturday I was shopping in my local Waitrose store using their “Quick Scanâ€? technology (a device that allows shoppers to hand scan goods as they shop and then pay at an ATM at the end without the need for queuing or any interaction with shop assistants!!). Great for me (apart from mild myopia, I have perfect vision) – not so good, in fact totally useless if you are blind or have a serious visual impairment. Waitrose have obviously made a business decision to include this service in their stores knowing full well that it is not a 100% accessible technology. However, they are not excluding blind or visually impaired users from shopping in their stores. They have compromised in a way that any serious profit making business has to.
    I have to confess to a slight feeling of unease when using the terms profit and accessibility in the same sentence. Don’t misunderstand me! I am certainly not saying that a profitable business can’t also be accessible to the majority of people in society, but I do think we have to be realistic and pragmatic when making decisions about the use of new, expansive technologies and those decisions surely have to take into consideration other, maybe somewhat controversial, factors which may sit outside of what we normally consider to be totally morally acceptable.

  • Ed

    I think a big problem with speech browsers is that they seem to just read out what is on the screen (usually from IE), rather than reading from HTML code. CSS has had support for speech features for a while, but it seems they are mostly used for CSS hacks these days!

  • http://3point7designs.blogspot.com Ross Johnson

    I think a large contributor are the companies behind the websites as well. Get one person with influence behind the website development who loves “cool” flash sites, AJAX tricks, etc… and they are going to want those over catering to the Accessibility market that they don’t even acknowledge as visiting their site.
    While larger companies might be in enough demand where they can simply say “My way, or go somewhere else” , those of us trying to keep a steady flow of work going don’t always have the choice.

  • Ed

    ….And then there are those people who put hour long voice MP3s online and just expect people to be able to hear them!
    What about deaf people? What about the bandwidth impaired?
    ;)

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    There is a transcription service for podcasts but it will cost us about $40 per show. You offering to pay Ed?

  • Ed

    Given exchange rates and transfer fees, I’ll do a transcript for £25 per show*. Hows that?
    …as for translations into other languages though?….. hmmm
    *Time-scales may vary.
    Accent-related errors may occur.
    Other terms and conditions apply. Contact me for details.

  • Brett

    One of my first exposures to the Macintosh platform (circa 1987) was through my cousin, a musician who was paralyzed from the neck down by a drunk driver and operated his computer via a “puff tube”, a little straw used to move the cursor via breath control.
    Thing is, even with that experience I have mixed feelings on the subject of accessibility. My family would have to choose, say, restaurants based on accessibility. If we couldn’t fit the wheelchair through the door we didn’t go. But the sad fact was, renovating every restaurant in the world for wheelchair access would not bring back my cousin’s ability to use his arms and legs. Nor would easy access to terrible food make it taste any better. The government makes an attempt to make life fair where it’s not fair; nevermind that you sell custom pogo sticks, the law requires you to build a ramp to your building.
    I used to work in a newspaper layout room designed and built by a man who was about 6 foot 3, and almost all of us had to stand on wood pallets to work. He built it for his own comfort, and we learned to adapt, and I think that’s the best way to approach the problem — as two jobs for two skillsets. Those who build the Web should take it as far as they can go, and those who create accessibility technology should do everything they can to make it accessible.
    Ed makes a great point. Not everyone can hear, so to be fair to everyone, this podcast shouldn’t exist so as to exclude no one. But that would help no one.

  • http://3point7designs.blogspot.com Ross Johnson

    I think you are talking about two different ends of the spectrum. The cost and effort of even building a handicap ramp vs the time and effort to learn and develop accessible websites is not even in the same ballpark (I work with a lot of real estate developers, so I have seen some of their bills compaired to mine).
    It is very easy to think about accessibility, learn CSS, and not pick the latest whiz-bang technologies over a well designed accessible website.
    Making a site at least single A accessible should be very easy to do… and once we get reasonable guidelines, going above that should be easy also.

  • Brett

    I agree, Ross. I guess I’m approaching the question from a less practical and more theoretical point of view. What triggered my response was Paul’s idea of “moral obligation,” which is what inspires laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The problem is, there are moral obligations and then there are cold, hard realities. As a quadriplegic, my cousin couldn’t even cough without assistance. That couldn’t be legislated away, and access ramps on every building in the world wouldn’t assuage that need. The tragedy, I think, is when good intentions become bad legislation.
    The thing is, you always have to start any project from some standard assumptions. Web accessibility guidelines start from some standard assumptions about disability. Dyslexia is not low vision, and large typefaces don’t address that problem.
    Again, theoretically, we should always consider accessibility. But as a person with good eyesight and hearing, I want to experience content-rich Flash-based websites. Like Paul said, “I have begun to feel like accessibility issues are holding the whole sector back.” That’s an unfair burden for Mr. Boag to carry. This is a poor analogy, but: I don’t have the physical strength (or finances) to scale Everest, but grounding the explorers isn’t good for them or me. I want those who can go to go, and later send back the best pictures they can.

  • Ed

    “Dyslexia is not low vision, and large typefaces don’t address that problem.”
    I know this isn’t your main point, or an example that you were basing everything off or anything, but….
    as a dyslexic myself, I find larger typefaces very useful, and much easier to read (although I have very good vision, and can read small text if needed).
    I have a radical suggestion: why don’t “we” work on building new technology that transcends the web, and moves data into more accessible formats? For example, RSS feeds could be imported into programs specially designed to read out their content. Web sites could be reduced to a page or two, and the rest of the content could be consumed through other means.

  • http://3point7designs.blogspot.com Ross Johnson

    While I do see your point, I just see the situation from a whole different light. It might simply be in my case, I am not a huge fan of supped up flash sites, and not excited by the latest Ajax tricks.
    Sure the first time around on these websites it does seem pretty nice, but I rarely visit a website more than once to be entertained by any sort of visual stimulation.
    Maybe the solution is simply to make sure that if you use inaccessible means, that you have an accessible version of the site also.
    With CSS and XML this is extremely easy to do anyways.

  • Brett

    I really appreciate everyone’s comments. Again, my thoughts play off of Paul’s initial comment on that little voice in his head. Sure, we want to be sensitive, we want to take everyone into consideration, we want to include everyone. But that’s impossible. And I think there’s a dangerous line you don’t want to cross, and that line is, “If everyone can’t do it, no one should do it.” Agreed, universal accessibility is a worthy aspiration, but if it begins to limit innovation, it’s destructive.
    My wife has lupus and is sensitive to sunlight, so I’ve adapted our house by putting up dark film over several windows. Are you a bad person if we come to visit you and you haven’t put up film, you insensitive bastard? Of course not. And a ramp to your door wouldn’t help. But you’d pull the drapes if we asked nicely and explained the problem. Both parties have to adapt.
    This site isn’t available in Italian, so that limits its accessibility. But some clever folk came up with babelfish to remedy that. I guess what I’m saying is the responsiblity needs to be spread around. And that’s why I’m troubled by the use of the word “moral.” I don’t see any moral failure in a scenario where someone says, say, “I have low vision and would really like better access to your site,” and you respond, “That’s a good idea, I’ll see what I can do.” Reasonable people will accept that it’s a process of trial and error and a learning experience for everyone.
    Maybe I’m just trying to cheer up Paul by engaging that grumpy old man on his behalf. We love you Paul. Keep up the good work.

  • Brett

    I wish I knew how to quit you, thread…
    One clarifying but unspoken assumption behind all my posts is the threat of lawsuits; that is, legislation is “moral obligation” writ large. It’s why that packet of peanuts you get on the plane carries the warning, “CAUTION: CONTAINS PEANUTS.”
    P.S. I’m suing Boagworld for posting podcasts without large-print transcripts.

  • http://3point7designs.blogspot.com Ross Johnson

    While I agree that we are never going to make a situation where it was “Everyone or no-one.” But that is a very black and white, no shades of gray statement.
    I don’t see accessibility as a black and white issue. You can make a site accessible to most with disabilities with in reason.
    Sure your not going to make a situation where someone who has gone brain dead, can’t read, and can’t hear can use the internet… but does that mean we should say “Well if we can’t help him, why help those with low vision?”

  • Ed

    Casting Words will do transcriptions for a few cents per minute.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    I know Ed, but that works out as a decent amount per podcast. We have no sponsorship and already ask a lot from Headscape by allowing us the time and bandwidth to make this podcast. I cannot ask them to pay for the transcription too.

  • Ed

    That WCAG 2 quick ref page seems to suggest that shownotes may be enough. I don’t find the formatting of that page very easy to understand, so there may be more to it, but at least that is what I can make out.

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