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Panel: getting along with accessibility

Filed in: accessibility, SXSW2005, Web, Sun, Mar 13 2005 10:20 PT

Glenda Sims of the University of Texas moderated a panel titled “Accessibiilty: Can We All Get Along?” It was not filled with nearly as much controversy as the title implied, though there were high points where less-friendly panelists might have knocked one another’s teeth out.

Question: What is the accessibility standard of choice? Ian Lloyd proposed WCAG 1.0 level AA, to nods from the others. Ian says that he tries to do as much of AAA as possible, but AA is an acceptable level. Glenda says AAA is idealistic (true), but wants to “encourage people with a standard they can easily understand, and don’t need a year of accessibility training.” (Ouch. It doesn’t take that long to understand it. All it takes is the will to learn it, and some brilliant and concise accessibility training resource which doesn’t yet exist.) She’s settled on 508 at the University of Texas because it’s easier to explain and more objective. (I was on a task force to come up with objective measures for 508. It was not as successful as it appears. The main advantage of 508 is that people can point to it, and say, it must be cut and dry. It’s law! Any lawyer would happily disabuse such people of such a notion.) How achievable a high level of accessibility is on the high end, with a large organization, is a point of discussion.

Long descriptions were discussed. Ian says he’s never used long descriptions: it’s much more useful to make it so that everyone can benefit from that content. Derek Featherstone concurs. He’s seen cases where the tabular data from which a pie chart was drawn is in the longdesc attribute, so few people can actually access it. (This is, of course, why the infamous D-links surfaced. Longdesc is an attribute without a presentation mechanism, as John Slatin hints from the audience.)

Question: Can I just have an accessibility checklist and be done? At Nationwide, Ian has about 20 developers, and he had to unlearn them on bad traits they had learned. He built a small site to line out the issues, and nobody would read it. So then he distributed a laminated page that he attached to their foreheads desktops to check things. Derek counters: “clearly you’re not a consultant…” He goes on to describe how people with checklists just go through the motions without understanding the underlying principles. They just don’t think about why they’re doing things, just that they’re doing it. (As I’ve mentioned before, this is why the law is not the best mechanism for pushing accessibility. You can make people do, but you can’t make them care.)

Question: Why in the world should an art museum Web site be accessible to people who can’t see? James mentioned his experience with AIGA, and he told them that the site is about articles on design. The AIGA site is essentially a blog. And art museums are full of information on the craft involved in the creation of the artworks. Derek adds that it could be a parent helping their children with homework. (Or, they could be someone who used to be sighted, and an artist. The greatest PostScript and PDF expert that I know is someone who lost his vision later in life.) Glenda adds Google, smaller devices and outdated browsers. James says that the Internet is based on the exchange of ideas, not images or video or whatever. “It’s about the information itself and not the graphics that are in front of that information.”

Question: How would you convince a startup company to spend precious resources making their product accessible from the beginning? Derek says that on one of his projects, he didn’t try to sell them standards. He just did it, and they learned that this was how they were doing things from now on. James says that at Frog Design, they’ll make it as accessible and standards-compliant as possible. They don’t even mention it unless it comes up.

The alt text game show: Glenda shows the audience an image, and the panelists write alt text. The description of a black-and-white photo from Yosemite Park. The panelists agreed in principle that it needed a description of about 20-30 words based on its detail. Then the image was put in context, supporting a line item in a stock image site. Two then said that the image itself should have no alt text in that situation. Derek disagreed, saying the supporting text there says nothing about the image. Another image, of three petits fours, was reasonably easy in itself, but then was shown in context on Ian’s company’s site. It was a link to different mortgage offers, so the alt text in that case should be “mortgage offers” or something like it.

Last question: Accessible = Boring? James: “That depends on if it’s a designer doing accessibility, or an accessibility guy doing design.” Laughter. (Still true.) They showed the Zoot Suit Culture site, which is done in Flash. James pushed back: Flash is not as accessible as HTML, though it is improving. They showed off a few good sites each had been associated with. (I think the key thing to bring out here is that, if you’re not a great visual designer, looking to accessibility standards isn’t going to help you, but it’s not necessarily the first thing to blame, either.)

One response to “Panel: getting along with accessibility”

  1. Why in the world should an art museum Web site be accessible to people who can’t see? Answer, we can appreciate the context of a piece of art without seeing it !

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