UKUPA's Accessibility meeting with Ian LloydWednesday, June 18, 2003
I did managed to tear myself away from an Internet connection to attend the UK Usability Professionals' Association's evening get-together about accessibility. Initially they were going to have two speakers, Ian Lloyd and Peter Bosher, but they managed to get an extra speaker who started off first.
Sapient / UK-Online
The first speaker (I'm crap at remembering names!) was a developer from Sapient, and spoke about the UK Online government project. Coincidentally, I had a browse through the UK Online website earlier that morning whilst doing some research on Peter Bosher. The presentation was very interesting, and reinforced the benefits achieved by using a graceful degradation authoring technique ("Design from the inwards out"). Initially the UK Online was going to have two "channels", one for high graphics, and one for "easy access" (commonly an euphemism for "text only"). Their rewrite of the website to produce only one accessible channel was largely built on the foundations of the easy access version. I noticed they were using Vignette as one of their content management tools, but there was no mention that it caused any problem in accessibility - hopefully that's a good sign.
The key points:
- UK Online were aiming at a level A WAI compliance
- They approached the desing by making sure the basic site was accessible, then "colourising" and enhancing
- Overall page size was reduced by 60%, and this reduced the page loading times to an impressive 4 - 8 seconds
- The pages were content-loaded, meaning that a screenreader would see the content before navigation and other page elements. They used a skip to navigation link to allow readers to jump immediately to the navigation items.
Peter Bosher was the second speaker. I did a bit of digging on google for him earlier that day and I found out he had authored a chapter about library accessibility aids in an online book about Library services best practice manual, and therein I learnt a little more about font-selection. I had no idea at all that Peter is blind.
Peter turned out to be the highlight of the evening. He started off covering the reasons why we should care about accessibility. One of the surprising stories was that Peter was using the French Minitel system using screen reader technology in 1990 - years before the World Wide Web came along. I guess that confirms that the technology for accessibility is in place and mature.
Disabled people using accessibility aids have more options open to them. Now college is a viable option, and there is a lot more opportunities of jobs. Doing something small such as making sure webpages are accessible gives the disabled the opportunity of independance. I guess the strength of this argument holds in that Peter is seriously considering going back to college, even though he is already recognised expert in accessibility aids.
Peter's aim for the evening was to explain how blind people use the web, what works for them and what doesn't. He wanted to playback the rendering of a few websites, but Murphy had other ideas. He made an exceptionally good point about the value of proper link text (visible text between anchors), and certainly the lack of suitable link text is the first exceptionally difficult barrier that prevents blind users from browsing amazon (no alt text on the top level of graphical tabs).
A couple of points that struck home for me were:
- According to the RNIB, a higher proportion of disabled people use technology such as the web than non-disabled people. Although at first this point comes as a surprise, but after some thought this makes a lot of sense considering the web allows disabled people to look around independantly without having to rely on the help of others.
- Expert speech browser users have the ability to skip directly to a certain line within an HTML page. This suggests to me that a modicum of design consistency certainly benefits blind users. So if your content always starts on the same line of an html page, then it makes it easier for users like Peter to jump around the page quicker.
- Tesco is a good example of the failure of a "text-only" version of a website. It is a poor relation to the inaccessible version, and people using the accessible version don't get the same special offers.
Accessibility testing is probably the most difficult part of creating accessible websites. Peter offered a few tips. Firstly, it will take a year or so of constant use for a new user to use a screen reader effectively, so he suggests that a web designer not try to use a screen reader since he will be struggling with the difficulties of the technology which may not be related to accessibility problems on his website. Instead, Peter offered us this gem of information: There is a yahoo group called Usability for Visually Impaired People who offer a service where a webdesigner can submit a URL for his website to the group, and members can then test the website and offer suggestions and corrections for improving the accessibility of the website. Certainly a useful resource.
Ian Lloyd, unfortunately, didn't get all the time he needed to run through his presentation (slides available) about the accessifying of Nationwide. He provided tips and suggestions for "buying-in" management into the need for accessibility. What seemed to have convinced the management at Nationwide for the need to be accessible was a demonstration of a blind person using a screen reader to access Nationwide's site. When a group of managers all leave a meeting shaking their heads and muttering "We've got to do something" is certainly a helpful boost for getting a website done right.
It is an idea I'm going to suggest to our accessibility "working group" as a means of kickstarting accessibility where I work. For a company where one of their core values is accessibility, it certainly doesn't take a genius to spot the contradiction. Nationwide recognises accessibility as fitting with their core values, so the precedent is there.
I got to have a brief chat to Ian at the conclusion of the evening, and I was impressed. He ain't no 40 year old bearded Linux programmer (Oi, Zeldman!), but certainly a knowlegeable guy with an enthusiasm for the web and what it can offer. Very approachable, likeable and posesses a keen insight into web matters.
I've been in a bit of a rut for quite a while in trying to progress accessibility at work. Part of the problem is thinking that no-one else understands the need for accessibility. Ian's presentation came at the right time, I could recognise the similarities of our two employers, and since Ian is the trailblazer I can be more confident knowing I'm not trodding in complete darkness on my own. That alone encourages a degree of enthusiasm.
Accessibility is really a social (and civil rights) issue - so it makes sense to communicate with society and not try to go it alone. That was the reason behind my attending this event - to meet someone who's been where I am, dealt with it successfully and now wears the T-shirt with pride. I'm no trailblazer, I just want to do the right thing for the right reasons - and I need help.