Weblogs: Book Reviews

Building Accessible Websites

Monday, May 19, 2003

Author: Joe Clark
Publisher: New Riders
Publish Date: 1 October 2002

Building Accessible Websites: Web Accessibility is a hot topic in the web community, owing largely to the increased attention to disability legislation being brought into force in many countries around the world. The basis of the legislation is that services and utilities offered to the public should be accessible to the public, and this includes websites open to the general public. It is unfortunate that legislation is required to encourage webmasters to deploy accessible websites, since there are competitive advantages and business benefits in accessibility - even for the non-disabled audience.

The expert in accessibility

With the current high-profile focus on accessibility, Joe Clark's effort at bringing accessibility to the masses with the publication of this book is both welcome and encouraging. Joe has been interested in accessibility techniques since his youth where he developed a strong interest in captioning - for television and movies. Over twenty years later, and with a decade of web, and Joe has emerged as a recognised and respected authority on web accessibility practices. However, Joe appreciates the requirements for websites to be an immersive experience using sophisticated development techniques - but without sacrificing accessibility. He recognises that the web audience wants the best the web can offer, streaming movies and video combined with enthralling content. It is that health appreciation for the audience that makes Joe's approach to accessibility a breath of fresh air in an otherwise academic topic. There's quite a bit of humour and life in this eminently readable book - a refreshing change from other dry technical web manuals littering shop bookshelves.

Introducing accessibility as a component of design

Building Accessible Websites starts off thematically looking at web design practices and accessibility, describing the benefits and dispelling the myths surrounding accessibility (including pro-accessibility myths), covering the difficulties disabled people face when using the web, and why accessibility makes things usable.

Practical authoring advice

The practical web authoring begins by explaining the need for standards compliant markup, and introduces XHTML as the basis for structuring content. As each technique and tool is introduced, Joe evaluates how well they are received by browsers, noting where techniques can cause problems and offering workable solutions. Joe's standards compliant approach also notes where browsers and user agents fail to conform to the standards correctly, and either offers an equally valid alternative that doesn't reduce the quality of the final deliverable, or in certain exceptional circumstances he suggests that it is far better for the user-agent manufacturer to fix the non-compliant portions than to force the author to work around a non-compliance in a way that damages accessibility and quality to other user-agents. The effect of this approach is that websites developed using Joe's approach have a longer shelf-life, with the element of future-proofing that's introduced by adhering to the web standards as recommended by the W3.

Each chapter devotes itself to particular accessibility issues - incorporating alternative text, titles and long descriptions for images, then looking at structured content. Navigation gets its own chapter and covers how to make pages more accessible using document flow, skip links, accesskeys (or accesscharacters to be more precise), and tab index. Then follows an excellent chapter about fonts and colour. The detail Joe provides about the types of colour blindness is far more useful than regurgitating lists of colour combinations to avoid. At least with Joe's material, with an understanding of what colour blindness actually is, a better and more informed decision can be made in regard to colour.

Making tables and frames accessible is the aim of chapter 10, and Joe succeeds in creating a path through the murky inconsistencies of browsers and user agents to provide useful and sensible advice. Within the chapter for stylesheets Joe looks ahead at the possibilities offered by aural stylesheets, so its a little less practical than the other chapters - especially since browser support for aural stylesheets is a little thin on the ground.

Forms deserve a chapter for themselves where Joe covers standard form elements like labels and fieldsets, plus he also devotes some space to the functionality of the forms themselves and evaluating methods of selecting countries and entering in phone numbers.

Multimedia accessibility

The chapter on multimedia demonstrates Joe's expertise and knowledge of the accessibility issues. He covers the different types of captioning, looking at where they succeed and what problems they cause. He acknowledges that material about good captioning is a little thin on the ground and so this chapter is an excellent start in reversing this problem. It even covers font-selection of captions, and the current status on Flash. Although I am not a multimedia fan, the material in this chapter is insightful and beneficial to web designers.

Accessibility requirements and the future

The last couple of chapters cover issues like deciding which level of accessibility compliance to aim for both for new material and pages that are already available. He covers strategies for making an existing website accessible, considering the resources and time required whilst also keeping in mind the benefits to the visitor. Joe also looks ahead looking at how current unsolvable accessibility problems can be solved - and highlights the problem of the current crop of content management systems.

As with any decent book covering issues with a legal slant, theres an excellent appendix covering the US ADA, Section 508, and the history of accessibility legislation, including the landmark Maguire vs SOCOG Australian accessibility case. Discussion is still rampant within the web community whether the American Disability Act covers websites, and in appendix A Joe unearths and reprints an article by Dana Whitehead McKee and Deborah T. Fleischaker, published in the Maryland Bar Journal Nov-Dec 2000 titled "The ADA and the Internet: Must websites be accessible to the disabled?" where it puts forward a convincing argument that websites do fall into the category of public accommodation. One the supplementary CD the full article with legal references plus a similar indepth article covering the UK Disability Discrimination Act.


All in all, this is an exceptional book about web accessibility. The technical sections are meaty and instructive - especially the chapters on images and navigation, whilst the theory sections are well written, easy reading and memorable. If you buy only one book about web accessibility - this is the one to get.

[ Weblog | Categories and feeds | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 ]