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Five Myths about Accessibility Myths

Filed in: accessibility, Tue, Jan 4 2011 05:06 PT

I’m an accessibility evangelist by trade. (No, seriously. It’s on my business card. My boss even knows.) Needless to say, such a job requires me to think seriously about what accessibility is all about, and how to communicate that to an audience that, frankly, has a lot of things on their mind, like keeping their jobs, turning a profit, or just not shooting up the place by the end of the day.

I would like to say that the material we have to offer people who want to learn about accessibility is plentiful (it is), and that it’s compelling enough to the constituencies we need to reach (it’s not).

The chief antipattern I can cite is the “accessibility myths” article. Search “accessibility myths” on Google and you’ll find a few hundred examples of this phenomenon. Ordinarily, these are blog posts citing a handful of elementary observations on the state of accessibility among designers and developers at the ground level. I know many, many people who have written them, nearly all of whose skills I respect. I want to ensure each of you that I’m not targeting any one of their lists in particular, except as symptoms of a greater problem. (I’m hoping this disclaimer will protect me from pages of comments defending previous attempts at this kind of writing.) The problem is that when one sets out such a line of demarcation–your information is false, mine is true–you may not be reaching the right people with the right news. Or if you are, you may not have made them feel motivated toward your cause.

In an effort to focus our energies a little better, I’ve put together the problems I find with the “accessibility myths” genre. And since it is better, pedagogically speaking, to present material in a form that the audience finds comfortable, here they are: five myths about accessibility myths.

1. Addressing knowledge gaps as “myths” is productive.

So let’s say I just walked into your RSS feed one morning and said, here are the five things you think are right about Mac OS X, that are wrong. That is to say: dear reader, I know you don’t know me, and obviously I don’t know you, but I’m going to start talking about how wrong you are about what may or may not be a common issue.

Wow. No wonder we’re so popular.

It’s clear that accessibility advocates frequently encounter the same kinds of opposition, and often fight dated or inaccurate information while trying to improve access to web content. But to stand on a soapbox and decry it all as mythology can be especially alienating.

So let’s try not to belittle people who we’re trying to rally to our side. Make sense? Good. I just don’t understand why everybody says you’re so dumb.

2. “Myth” articles are compelling and convincing.

Now that we’ve irritated the people we most need to reach, it’s time to move on to the banalities that set each specific accessibility expert off. Most myth posts begin with a no-brainer like “accessibility is about creating a text-only site” or “accessibility is all about blind people and screen readers.” These are generalizations at their most basic and uncontroversial. If you actually encounter someone in the wild who believes something like this, they’re not misinformed: they’re uninformed. It’s not a myth to someone who hasn’t ever heard or believed it.

The second type of misstep is to claim something is a myth when it’s actually something reasonable people can debate. One that I can think of that keeps recurring is the statement that accessibility work is “time-consuming, expensive and very technical”. That came from RNIB’s myths article from 2009. Here’s the thing: quite often, accessibility work is time-consuming, expensive and very technical. Especially to someone who doesn’t know all they need to know about it, or someone who went too far down the wrong path before accessibility was called to his or her attention. That is to say, your most critical audience.

It’s not the best strategy to say to someone who’s suffering through accessibility remediation that they’re not experiencing what they’re experiencing. Or worse, to tell them that they’re only in the situation they’re in because they didn’t come to us earlier. It causes accessibility advocates to seem out of touch with the reality of the lifecycle of web design and development. It’s good for people to be made aware of the problems that can arise. But for those staring those problems in the teeth, they’re looking for solutions. What they’re getting is: “I told you this would happen.”

3. “Myths” are actually the reason accessibility isn’t happening.

One of the most alluring parts of mythologizing accessibility problems is that we can take our anecdotal evidence and construct an entire worldview around it. It’s a great way to vent our frustrations when we aren’t enabled to change the outcome of a given site’s design, for example.

But the way I see it, maybe the myth in most myths articles is that people are really legitimately thinking any of these things. Might some people still believe that a text-only site is an acceptable way to check off that accessibility box on their launch checklist? Maybe. Was it a problem in 2003? You bet. Now? Less so. And with much better arguments in its favor, like an approach that also integrates scenarios for mobile users, as well.

One more thing here: the text-only thing isn’t a myth. It’s just what many people were taught, starting in 1998. (Remember that text-only sites are enshrined in paragraph 1194.22(k) of Section 508, which itself is a product of an assembly of accessibility experts, and which remains the primary reference for workers in all levels of government in the US.)

The goal of advocacy is to frame the debate regarding what you stand for, and why. When you begin the debate by arguing against what you’re not about, you are setting yourself up for failure. (Side note: remember this in 2012, Democrats.) It would be much better to say to people that times have changed, that we have better ways to do things, and that an integrated site is more equitable and less work-intensive overall than if we tell our readers they’re fooling themselves simply because they listened to the experts a dozen years ago.

4. “Myth” articles contain useful, actionable information.

Anybody who writes stuff like this knows that it’s not going to be any good until you come up with five red herrings to rail against. (Three, if you’re really an SEO person in disguise.) Where a lot of these articles go awry is in failing to provide information that people can integrate in their websites today. Go read a few dozen myths posts. Can you find more than a handful of real accessibility techniques there? Are there pointers to other resources so that people can learn more proactively? (Note to Roger Johansson: you, sir, are officially off the hook.)

When I put myself in the shoes of a web developer who’s investing five minutes into learning about accessibility, I tend to think I’d rather hear “you can use red and green if you’re also using other means to differentiate those elements” than “Myth: Red and green cannot be used.” This is a learning opportunity, not Opposite Day.

And while I’m piling on, if you can be confident about what people should and shouldn’t be doing for all content on the web, it should be easy enough to come up with some examples of what you’re talking about. Right?

5. “Myth” articles reach the audience they’re intended for.

Wanna know how I find out about new accessibility myths articles? My friends in the accessibility community retweet them. Incessantly. They’re inescapable. (At least, they used to be. Thanks, TweetDeck filters!) They touch a nerve with us, and we share them far and wide, like designers share that McSweeney’s Comic Sans piece. (Guilty.) We’re sharing the causes of our suffering. And there’s a place for that. But what is being practiced isn’t advocacy, it’s self-soothing.

Myths are “inside baseball” articles–the kind of thing you’d commiserate about over beers at your favorite accessibility conference. Are these kinds of posts really meant to recruit new accessibility advocates, or are they really only going to resonate with those of us who are already in the thick of things?

Think hard about who it is that you want to motivate with this kind of writing. If you put something like this together and find when you’re proofreading that it sounds like you’re venting about your day, it’s entirely likely that you’re preaching to the converted. And there are a lot of unconverted out there to choose from. Tailor your message to the needs of that audience, and you may have a better chance to make your case.

Introducing “Universal Design for Web Applications”

Filed in: accessibility, book, design, universal design, Web, Web 2.0 Expo, Mon, Sep 15 2008 14:46 PT

It’s funny how sometimes things get wrapped up in a little bow.

Last April, I was in San Francisco, giving my “Accessibility 2.0″ talk at the first O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo. Out of that conference came the seed for the project that I’ve been working on, and now, I’m happy to unveil it. This Wednesday, I’m flying off to speak at Web 2.0 Expo New York, to give a talk called “Universal Design for Web Applications” with my longtime colleague Wendy Chisholm.

What’s gone on in the intervening 17 months has been our work on a book of the same name.

Universal Design for Web Applications just reached final manuscript status last Thursday. It’s scheduled to be published by O’Reilly in November.

We’re really excited about how the book turned out. We chose universal design as our standard to bear because we’re moving beyond accessibility, and applying the principles we’ve learned from accessible design to a whole new world of mobile devices like the iPhone, and lifestyle devices like the Asus Eee PC. The point here is that the days of knowing what your users’ screens look like are over. Even if accessibility weren’t a consideration, universal design is going to inform most of the big decisions web content producers are going to face in the near future. We in accessibility have been where those decision-makers will be, and we have a lot of advice to impart.

We have a lot of information on new topics like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and the WAI-ARIA specification. We talk about video and script like they’re first-class citizens. And we do the same for Flash, Flex and Silverlight. The fact is that all of these technologies are going to be with us for a long time, and the faster we embrace them, and learn how to make them work for people, the better we will all be for it.

You can preorder UD4WA on Amazon. And come see us Wednesday at 9am in 1A21 & 22 at the Javits Center.

Here’s a shot of the cover:

Universal Design for Web Applications book cover, featuring a woodcut of an Italian greyhound

@alt and the Flickr Defense

Filed in: accessibility, Web, Thu, May 1 2008 18:09 PT

Alt text matters to users. When an image is not visible, due either to a user’s own visual or cognitive disability, or their use of a low-bandwidth or intermittent connection to the web, @alt is there to provide the necessary, missing semantics. This is a good thing. So good, in fact, that @alt is a required attribute in HTML 4.01 and all flavors of XHTML. If you omit alt text, your code is not valid HTML.

However, as of today, alt is not a required attribute for the img element in HTML5. Despite claims that this is neutral or even beneficial to accessibility, this is a bad idea, made worse by adversarial relations between participants in the HTML Working Group and accessibility advocates, including those in the W3C/WAI Protocols and Formats Working Group, of which I am a participant.

Much of the discussion around this rather tense standoff has centered around what I call the Flickr Defense. It goes like this:

Sites like Flickr depend on user-generated content in the form of uploaded images. (Of course Flickr now accepts video, something that has also been added to HTML5, and which may have even bigger problems than the issue at hand. But that’s for another time.) Flickr doesn’t know what to communicate as meaningful alt text. But if we want them to adopt HTML5, they wouldn’t be able to create valid documents without that @alt. So in this very limited case, Flickr should be able to have an img element without @alt.

This argument is bogus on numerous counts.

First, let’s dispense with the very limited case for making @alt optional. Once an attribute like @alt is optional anywhere, it’s optional everywhere. One could make the argument that the specification limits the scope of acceptable use of missing @alt to only where it’s not possible for it to be meaningful. But that’s just one image out of 65 on the average Flickr photo page. And if it’s an optional attribute, we could strip the alt text from all of those other images, and an HTML5 validator could do nothing but assert that it remains valid. That’s a huge step backward for users as well as accessibility evaluation tools, which interpret missing alt as an error. But more on that later.

Second, Flickr could, in fact, require that meaningful alt text accompany images that are uploaded. Other sites, such as Smugmug, actually do offer the ability to do that, either as they’re uploaded, or as a batch job after the fact. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which apply explicitly to sites like Flickr, require that such sites prompt users for that content. If they prompted for and stored that content from the user, they’d be able to insert meaningful alt text where it is required. There’s no need to give them a pass.

(Although that’s exactly what the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 does. Flickr could make a partial conformance claim stating exactly why they can’t produce alt text. They could still insert generic alt text like “user-uploaded image” and satisfy the requirements of users with disabilities to some extent.)

Third, Flickr image pages have over 80 validity errors, and that’s just HTML 4.01 Transitional. Why should the HTML specification make supposedly narrow exceptions to the spec to be more lax about validation when the sites themselves aren’t even trying today?

How it works today

There are three conditions for alt text that are currently determinable:

  • This image has meaningful alt text. (alt=”foo”)
  • This image is decorative, and needs no text equivalent. (alt=””)

The third is determinable now, but would not be in HTML5 as proposed:

  • The author has not entered alt text for this image. (missing @alt)

This is critical because assistive technology looks for repair data (including filename, etc.) when @alt is missing. We need to know whether @alt is null due to conscious effort, or that it has been ignored, in order to know what to do next.

The Flickr Defense is a fourth state:

  • The author asserts that s/he cannot provide alt text.

It is the wrong solution to take away the semantics from the third state to indicate the fourth. There would be far more missing @alt attribs due to inattentiveness on the part of the author than conscientious statements that @alt is not possible.

The clearest indicator that this is an awful idea is that same Flickr image page. All of the images with missing alt attributes on the Flickr image page could have meaningful data. In fact, most of them do. It’s just sitting in the title attribute instead.

So what do we do, smart guy?

I don’t want to propose a solution to the problem when I think the status quo in HTML 4.01 doesn’t need to be mucked with. But, okay, you read a big long accessibility article, so here’s a thought experiment.

Add an attribute. Call it @usergenerated. When a UA encounters this attrib, it indicates that the author has stated alt cannot be provided programmatically.

It would be even better if other users could detect that attrib and annotate the attached image. If you could get around the spam potential, this could be a real winner. Crowd-sourced @alt. That’s actual accessibility progress, measurable today.

If you can’t do that much, leave @alt alone.

Gez Lemon’s analysis of the subject got me wound up enough to write about it. If you don’t like what I had to say, blame him.

(Note: This isn’t meant as a critique of Flickr per se. It just happens to be a site that’s being held up by third parties as the reason to backtrack on @alt as a required attribute.)

Aging and accessibility

Filed in: accessibility, design, Web, Mon, Mar 31 2008 17:07 PT

You know what I think should cause everyone to give at least some thought to accessibility?

Your thirties.

I remember one day, when I was 30. I threw the sheets off the bed, and shot my legs out to launch myself from the bed. I took two steps forward, saw a blinding light… and found myself lying on the floor, unable to move for several minutes. It was my first back spasm, and knocked me out of commission for a couple weeks.

Suddenly, things I took for granted, like getting up and looking in the fridge, were things I had to consider. I didn’t want to go anywhere, because it hurt to breathe, much less move. But in that time, I had to fly cross-country to tend to my grandmother in her final days, and that meant managing my pain while my back was screaming in an airplane seat, and then being wrenched as I carried all my luggage. It was the first time that my mobility was reduced, the first time I preferred elevators to taking the stairs two at a time, and the first time I had to depend on other people to help me do what I considered to be basic tasks.

It seems that since then, every six months I get a reminder that my body is not necessarily my friend. Most recently, I strained a ligament in my foot while exercising. Let me tell you, foot injuries suck. When your foot hurts, you keep hoping it doesn’t get worse. And when it doesn’t, you’re scared to do anything that might aggravate it again. So I had a very strange weekend that involved walking with a cane to keep weight off my foot.

It’s simple to look at people with a visible disability and say, I’m glad that’s not me. But you know what? Sooner or later, it will be.

Your vision will likely be the first thing to go. You may strain to read small type, at first. Then, maybe you’ll try bifocals. After that, as the effects of presbyopia set in, you’ll come to rely on your glasses to read. Your vision may start to yellow a bit, as well.

But wait! There’s more!

Hearing loss is a common side effect of the aging process. You may also encounter problems with arthritis (by the way: you’re not resting your wrists on the wrist rest while you’re typing, are you? Are you?), or any of a host of other fine or gross motor dysfunctions that will advance over time. And you may find that your cognitive abilities aren’t as sharp as they once were. (Hopefully before those around you start talking about it.)

I started doing web development when I was 20. At the time, it was barely conceivable to us that people of a certain age would be using the web. We didn’t even know if the web itself was going to last. But here it is, still chugging after a dozen and a half years, and not looking a day over 10.

And nowadays, I look around at the people I’ve worked with, and some of them are really old. Like, in their fifties! Some have even retired — the kind of retired where they’re collecting Social Security and posting pictures of their grandkids to Flickr. Get it? They’re using Flickr. And YouTube. And Gmail, and Twitter, and especially eBay. They also tend to have money to spend, and companies tend to like people like that.

And yet, I still hear people dismissing accessibility for older people on the web. That’s not going to fly any longer. Younger people are coming up on the web, that’s true. But those of us already there are only getting older, and we’re not going to stop liking the web anytime soon.

Keep this in mind when you’re about to downplay whether older users will want to use your site. The right thing to ask is:

Will you want to use this site when you’re older?

Or maybe, do you want some 20-year-old smartass deciding you won’t?

IE 8: web standards win

Filed in: accessibility, Web, Wed, Mar 5 2008 22:38 PT

It must have been some kind of event for me to break my blogging silence.

I read about the IE 8 beta (and I’ll test it for myself as soon as I prep a fresh virtual machine…). Key features include support for the WAI-ARIA spec, and Acid2 compliance. Chris Wilson apparently also said during his talk today at Mix that they’re aiming for full support for CSS 2.1.

Okay, guys. You win. I’m impressed. There, I said it. I said something nice about Microsoft. I even did it on my Tablet PC, running Vista, just for good measure.

I was one of many who groaned at IE 7 when it caused a new round of conditional comment breakage, and when its own issues started to pinch authors into making more tweaks just to keep standards-based development working. Back then, I saw it as a small step forward for a team that had just been reassembled. I hoped for big things to come after – big, positive things – but so far, if the bits resemble the hype, let me be the first to welcome Microsoft back to the standards-based web.

There have been almost too many battles to name in the web standards arena over the last several years, and there are still some that make me itch. The <canvas> element springs to mind. But the thought of every major vendor finally supporting HTML 4.01 and CSS 2.1 has left me almost giddy, and ARIA support in all the major browsing platforms just puts me over the top. I think it can now be said that the standardistas have finally got what they wanted: a stable contract with browsers that what they code is what the user will get.

What next? Oh, I don’t know. How about we gather up everybody still designing web sites in 2008 using layout tables, font tags, and the like, and run them out of town on a rail? Who’s with me?

Hit Refresh: talking Monday in Seattle

Filed in: accessibility, speaking, Fri, Aug 17 2007 16:03 PT

On Monday, August 20th, I’ll be speaking at Refresh Seattle (Ballard Library, 5614 22nd Ave. NW) from 6-7:30pm. Attendance is free, but you totally have to buy me a beer afterward. (Okay. Maybe just one of you. Sixty would be too many.)
One talk about accessible design ain’t enough, Jack. You’d better make it three. The talk is titled “Web Accessibility in Three Acts”. These mini-talks will cover:

  • Everything you should probably know by now as a web designer or developer;
  • What to look forward to with new web technologies and advanced accessibility techniques; and
  • Accessibility hacks – what you can do with the tools that come free with your operating system.

Yes, I will be talking about Ajax, Flash and Flex. Yes, I may even say “Rich Internet Applications.” Things are moving so fast in this space that it’s hard to know what to say even in an hour and a half, especially to tired, thirsty people. Hopefully, this one is going to be fun for the whole family. Bring your engineers! Your product managers! Everybody is invited!

How to tell if it’s a fire drill

Filed in: accessibility, personal, Thu, Jun 21 2007 23:01 PT

Today at work, the fire alarm went off, and I was reminded of what the HR person told me during orientation on Monday: if you get outside and there’s no ice cream, then it’s not a drill.

We got ice cream.

As some of you may have heard, this week I started in my new position as Adobe’s accessibility engineer. I’ve known many of my new coworkers at Adobe for years now, and it’s great to be able to finally get me a copy of CS3 – I mean, to have such talented people around me. I’m working out of the Seattle office, next door to where I got married, and across the street from the Blue Flavor guys. All systems are go.

And hey, while I’m at it, here’s a brief history of my 2007 so far. Since the first of the year, I had been working in Amazon.com’s enterprise group on the front end for their newest merchant. That site went live last Tuesday. (Rumor control: no, they didn’t hire me to do accessibility work. No, I didn’t have anything to do with the NFB agreement. In fact, I never even talked with anyone who works on Amazon’s core site, that I know of. Hopefully this ends that little telephone game.)

Also, as of today, I am a second-year Arabic student. I’ve been studying at the Seattle Language Academy (which, conveniently, is a 5-minute walk from Adobe) since last June. The number one question I’ve had to answer since then has been, why Arabic? (Although “Can you get Photoshop for me?” is giving it a run for its money.) The answer is that I’m an infojunkie, and most of the important info is, unsurprisingly, coming from the Arab world. It’s a language that’s beautiful and complex, and I will (ٍإن شاء الله) stick with it until I have a good enough basis to move on from Modern Standard Arabic, or فصحى (fusHa), to colloquial, or عامية (ameyya).

So, that’s the news. No more fire drills for a while.

Jeremy Keith has a posse

Filed in: accessibility, Web 2.0 2007, Wed, Apr 18 2007 15:18 PT

Yesterday at the Web 2.0 Expo, I had a chance to see Jeremy Keith’s session titled “The Beauty in Standards and Accessibility”. (If you happened to catch that and my session earlier in the day, I’m sure you got the point that standards-based development is kind of important when it comes to making reasonably-sized sites reasonably accessible.)

What I didn’t expect to see was the crowd of people that followed him for the quarter-mile walk from the session room up to the speakers room, where he handed out copies of his book, Bulletproof Ajax. It was fascinating to see this guy being swarmed by people as he left the room. I got the sense that they would gladly have carried him on their shoulders.

Jeremy wrote about it on his blog, but in typical British Irish-living-in-Britain style, left out the details of his new fan club, and it is my responsibility to state for posterity that Jeremy does, in fact, have a posse.

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