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Panel: Web accessibility for everyone

Filed in: accessibility, SXSW2004, Web, Sat, Mar 13 2004 22:36 PT

The first of a series of accessibility panels covered a fairly wide variety of content. Wendy Chisholm, my colleague, went first. Wendy tried out her new analogy: accessibility is a lot like a car. There are cars with manual transmissions, and some with automatic. In any situation, though, there aren’t auto-driving cars. The deal is the same with Web accessibility: you need to know how to drive before you can take advantage of anything. After that, you can use automated tools, or you can get in there and fix it manually, but ultimately, you must obey the rules of the road. The W3C accessibility guidelines are there as a roadmap toward accessibility.

John Slatin: People used to treat accessibility guidelines like someone told them, “don’t do that.” “You can choose to see things that way… as compliance.” But you can also think of things as constraints, and spur creative thinking. WCAG and Section 508 both require synchronized equivalents, which means captioning and audio description.

Jeff Veen: He says he doesn’t have to worry much about accessibility anymore. He remembers the design of Wired, bringing print designers in, and having to disabuse them of their print freedoms (fonts, page size and resolution). Now, though, the good designers are designing for the Web. And good standards-based design is happening from that. The kinds of discussions he has with designers involve things like semantics and relationships. That’s the future of design, says he. (And me.)

So, if you take broken browsers, like “Netscape 4 and IE 6” (applause from the crowd), and then design for the better standards-compliant sites, you end up with stuff that’s easier to implement, because it’s simpler code, smaller, works better on many formats, better at search engine performance, and oh yes, cheaper. So he doesn’t care about accessibility, he cares about good design. Accessibility falls out of that with “very little extra consideration.”

It’s easy to make accessible blogs, because it’s an individual author’s choice. When you get more into things like Wired News, it’s still possible to make a valid, accessible document. He showed how it degrades on downlevel browsers. He showed off SprintPCS’s site, which also degrades gracefully.

John hits one of my favorite topics: get accessibility into the templates that you use, and use those templates. You should not be reinventing the wheel all the time.

Wendy says you don’t need a screen reader to experience some problems with accessibility. “Just stop using a mouse.” Or increase the font size. Wendy is looking for designers to help with the visual design of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, and to submit techniques for how to satisfy them. There is a techniques form available, so people can submit concepts.

A question about how bad frames are. John: “It depends.” If the frames have meaningful title attributes, it’s not so bad. IE is broken when it comes to frames. Someone suggested adding skip links to find frames.

A question about assistive technologies not being up to spec. Who should win out? Wendy said the WCAG working group is working on this. Sometimes the underlying technology is broken, because they don’t have the information to tell what’s going on. It knows something happened, but not where. That’s a good reason for finding techniques that work.

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