Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 1: Flash

Monday, September 25, 2006

The web accessibility community is in deep trouble. Its a train-wreck waiting to happen. Unfortunately when the collision eventually happens, disabled people lose out. Its time to get web accessibility back on track. Take it back from the zealots with their own private agendas and grudges. (This is part of my series on Accessibility in Trouble).

Technology evolves

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 was published as a W3C recommendation on 5th May 1999. That's now well over seven years ago. Microsoft's Internet Explorer had just eclipsed Netscape Navigator 4 as the top dog browser.

Seven years later, technology has moved on. Using web standards is now a feasible development approach. Flash has come along in leaps and bounds. Unfortunately WCAG hasn't. A WCAG 1.1 would look quite different if it were a snapshot of technology perhaps even of two years ago. (WCAG 2.0 looks drastically different in its accommodation of technologies - for example, the baseline approach.)

Technology evolves. It improves, especially in its ability to make content accessible. Technology is one very important factor in web accessibility.

The dogma of Luddism

And yet, there's a vocal group of supposedly accessibility evangelists that show an almost Luddite disdain of improving technology. For instance, the following remark:

Whilst efforts have been made to make Flash accessible, I would dispute that any site that requires any form of plugin to be rendered can be regarded as accessible, unless an alternative (plain HTML) access method is provided.

Flash may be used to enhance, as can images, client side scripting, etc. But, at the end of the day, in my opinion, if it fails the Lynx[1] test, the site is not accessible.

1 - Lynx, for those that do not know it, is a text only web browser.

I've seen this statement being made a number of times in fora across the Internet (notably in organisations requiring members to demonstrate knowledge of web accessibility!). Effectively, this person is advocating that for Flash to be accessible, there needs to be two accessible implementations: one accessible version in Flash, and one accessible version in HTML.

Now this was true four years ago - in the days of Flash 5, when accessible Flash was an oxymoron. But wake up. It is certainly no longer that clear cut today. Macromedia and Adobe have made some excellent progress in the last five years. And now there is a community springing up that's embracing accessibility.

Birth of a community

When two Flash experts spend time with the RNIB, testing, learning, understanding how disabled people use the web, and how Flash can enhance their experiences - it's a Straussian epoc. When the Shaw Trust is actively engaged in testing the accessibility of Flash, and give it a thumbs up - its another Also Sprach Zarathustra moment. Put those together, and the facade some accessibility 'experts' (still cowering from monolith) desperately want you to believe collapses.

The web accessibility community needs to be actively engaged with the Flash accessibility community. There's a surprising amount of cross-over and idea-swapping opportunities to be explored. The coolest example is Niqui Merret's twist on Lawrence Carvalho's and Christian Heilmann's Text-Resize Detection recently published on A List Apart.

Flash as a solution

Flash has an advantage over HTML and CSS in that it is far better placed in dealing with learning based or reading based disabilities. Its foundation as a vector based graphics engine trumps HTML's and CSS' mediocre feature set when tackling disability barriers best met with interactivity and graphics. Its time to admit, Flash is part of the web accessibility toolbox.

Cutting edge pragmatism

Its ironic, that cutting edge web accessibility is happening in the Flash and JavaScript communities, and in pragmatic doses - away from the Luddism that's fracturing the web accessibility community. Although, we live in fear that Luddism will win over pragmatism - that five year old dogma extinguishes the spirit and enthusiasm of web accessibility.

Luddism is not a rational basis for improving the online experience for people with disabilities.

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