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How to save the world, part 1

Filed in: accessibility, design, Web, Tue, Jul 5 2005 22:41 PT

Here I am, finishing up my second workday away from the W3C, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve spent it like I’ve spent the last three years: lashed to my email client, and thinking about accessibility all day.

I officially joined the WaSP Accessibility Task Force today. My name was on the announcement last week, but I had decided that I didn’t want to worry about tying myself-as-WAI-representative to anything that required higher-level coordination. Now, I am higher-level coordination. In my current corporate structure, what I say goes, dammit.

Joe Clark and Roger Johansson have suggested what tasks the ATF should tackle. I’ve got a set of my own.

Connect with designers

I have never particularly considered it fair to criticize WAI for not having reached the design community with its message. WAI is fundamentally the wrong place to start if you’re looking to sell designers. Outside of the standards and accessibility crowd, content producers are not looking to WAI for leadership. Most know only that their country or organization has required them to comply with some standard which tells them what to do.

But not why. For too long, accessibility has been about passing tests rather than meeting needs. In order to cause a fundamental shift in the minds of content producers, we need to do something to take their minds off of running automated tools, and get them to focus on the real issues involved. With all due respect to Watchfire, Bobby ain’t Accessibility. It is a big mistake for designers to confuse the map with the territory in this space. It is a hellish nightmare to have policymakers do so.

Focus on process

It’s a far better scenario for all involved to agree on the fundamental elements of the accessible Web design process. This consists of techniques across the Web design workflow which increase the accessibility of the final product: from good table markup to validity to information architecture to selecting accessible authoring tools.

The end result of a workflow like this is that we break free of the logical fallacy I call “capital-A Accessibility”: the idea that accessibility is some tangible business expense like computers or desks, or some kind of cake frosting you smear onto the surface once you’re done with everything else. Focusing on the process is an indication that accessibility is not just a checkbox on some conformance sheet. It’s the affordance of human rights to a group of people, and it deserves the respect and understanding of the people who undertake it.

A side benefit, though one not to be ignored, is that a consensus statement of the accessible process is a signal to the authorities that a content producer is acting in good faith to make their content more accessible. That’s a far more powerful statement than “I checked it with Bobby.” And it’s a better indicator of positive outcomes. The documents that authors produce on a daily basis should be WCAG-conformant by their very nature, because the authors, tools and processes involved in content creation direct it to come out that way.

My good friend Eric Lippert expertly describes a phenomenon similar to the current state of Web accessibility at the content creation stage: “cargo cult programming“. You must read his post, but for now I’ll let you get away with this handy blockquote:

The cargo cultists had the unimportant surface elements right, but did not see enough of the whole picture to succeed. They understood the form but not the content. There are lots of cargo cult programmers — programmers who understand what the code does, but not how it does it. Therefore, they cannot make meaningful changes to the program.

[... I]t’s like playing chess. Anyone can learn how the pieces legally move. Playing a game where the strategy makes sense is the hard (and interesting) part. You need to have a very clear idea of the semantics of the problem you’re trying to solve, then carefully implement those semantics.

Foster media accessibility

The overall accessibility of the HTML world has increased steadily over the last few years, for which we have both the law and enlightened self-interest to thank. Meanwhile, rich media accessibility is still mired in the Dark Ages. Captioning and audio description are poorly integrated in the media players of 2005, with various open and proprietary formats available, each with complex external file dependencies, light documentation, and worst of all, almost no discoverability to the user. It follows, then, that a tiny fraction of all rich media on the Web is captioned and/or described — and when it is, users who would benefit from it either can’t find out how to turn it on, or are so accustomed to that form of content failing them that they’ve just given up entirely.

It’s time for the rich media Renaissance.

It is too late in the game for media accessibility to be ignored. As movies are being delivered legally online, IPTV services are coming online, baseball and football (I mean, soccer) are subscription services, and thousands of podcasts, audio and videoblogs are available, it is time to push for increased accessibility to all of this content.

This is a place where W3C’s mandate is somewhat limited. They control the SMIL specification, which is used by Real and QuickTime for captioning (Microsoft uses the ancient SAMI format), and the Distribution Format Exchange Profile (DFXP), which facilitates transcoding between the various captioning and subtitling formats. (Don’t try to read that spec unless you’re hardcore.) But the W3C can’t lock Apple, Microsoft and Real in a room until they make it easy for content producers to make accessible video. WaSP should be pushing the media player developers to play nice with one another, and produce an interoperable captioning mechanism which will work with and without digital rights management (DRM) technologies — and without a lot of futzing around on the part of the user.

Authors will need to learn quite a bit about producing this content, as well. In addition to my earlier suggestion of fanscription for podcasts, I’m working on a really cool way to get useful but inaccessible media into the hands of authors who need to gain experience in captioning and description, and from there into the hands of the users who stand to benefit from it. (More details coming soon.)

Finally, a mark similar to the Closed Captioning logo on North American TV should be developed and applied to Internet-delivered media. That mark should be discoverable by browsing a host Web page, should be embeddable in the media file, and must be available in machine-readable form. The Creative Commons model is instructive.

Put pressure on assistive technology

All assistive technology has something broken when it comes to standards-based design. Many, but not all, AT vendors actually care about that fact. The good actors should receive all the help they need to bring their tools up to spec (and that spec would be the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, which includes assistive technologies and AT/user agent pairings in its scope). The bad actors must be called out as such. They are a part of the problem, and they have been sheltered from criticism for too long.


So, that’s the next five years’ worth of work for the WaSP Accessibility Task Force. It’s a lot to get done, but I’m sure my colleagues will come up with a plan that will ensure these challenges are met, and get people actively thinking about how to advance the field of Web accessibility.

And with all that said, I hereby resign from the ATF.

(Just kidding.)

4 Responses to “How to save the world, part 1”

  1. Isofarro says:

    Matt, its excellent news that you are part of the ATF. I’m glad you are not disappearing on us!

  2. Joe Clark says:

    Just so you’ll know, half of what you’re asking for with captioning and description is what I’m already working on, and I’d appreciate avoiding duplication of effort. I also think you have a problem with consistency in your podcasting and your inevitable throwing up of hands about transcribing those podcasts.

    Your idea about an indicator for accessible media is actually unrelated to graphic-design logos.

  3. [...] From Matt May (now an ATF member): How to save the world, part 1 [...]

  4. hamachi says:

    its excellent news that you are part of the ATF. I’m glad you are not disappearing on us..

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