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Accessibility Issues In The Real World

It's Not Just About Flash And Nielsen



9:15 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member digitalghost is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

I don't think any web designer intentionally constructs a site that is difficult for people with sensory impairments to utilize, the problem is that unless the designer is familiar with the challenges involved, it is nearly impossible to construct a site that is accessible to everyone.

To be honest, my considerations in regard to "usability and accessibility" extended to making sure sites were cross-browser compliant. That changed when I was handed the task of developing content for several sites that by necessity must be accessible to people with impaired vision.

Ergophobe's excellent thread on color-blindness helped considerably. [webmasterworld.com...]
But it didn't touch on developing sites for people that are nearly sightless or people with no sight. To find out exactly what was involved in creating a truly accessible site I turned to people that had to deal with websites in the real world, with real obstacles. They provided insight into problems that a sighted person just wouldn't recognize as being a problem.

Screen reader software is a wonderful thing and text to speech capabilities have increased to the point where they are a very useful tool, or they could be if sites were designed with text to speech in mind. Unfortunately, most designers never consider text to speech in their design. There's an excellent article that explains a number of the pitfalls involved with typical websites. It's a N.Y. Times article so you have to register but the registration is painless, I promise. :) [nytimes.com...]

In working with the designer on content presentation it didn't take long to realize that many of the elements that are considered sound web design are stumbling blocks for people that rely on text to speech software. If you'd like to experience a small portion of the frustrations that people using text to speech software must deal with you can download ReadPlease for free here: [readplease.com...] Simple items like navigation elements become painfully repetitive. In order for you to get the full effect, simply highlight an entire web page and use the text to speech software to listen to the page. I used the N.Y. Time's page on accessibility for a simple test. Then I tried to imagine "reading" the entire site with reader software. The Times does have a nice printer friendly version, but even in that version they opted for a graphic "T" which changes the first word of text from "There" to "Here".

Some of the reader software we tested with reads alt tags which at first glance seemed a positive thing. Unfortunately, with navigation elements that are placed on every page the user is once again forced to listen to every navigation link. This becomes a nightmare when some SEO stuffs 10 keywords into every alt tag.

A few of the pieces of screen reader software we tested used arrow keys for navigation from hyperlink to hyperlink, which is of course entirely negated by using Flash elements to create navigation structures and is sometimes defeated with javascript pulldowns. In fact, hyperlinks need to be looked at from an entirely different perspective. If images are used, the text to speech rendering becomes a stilted, imcomprehensible mumble of colon slash slash w w w dot webmasterworld dot com slash p dot cgi question mark action equals sign new and sign forum equals sign numeral twenty one.

We're still developing these sites and we've learned to consider such things as allowing for a "skip navigation" feature that allows screen readers to get to the content without reading all the nav elements and we've opted for a complete text-only version of the site which will accommodate screen readers. We've also learned to limit the use of abbreviations, something I rarely considered in regard to text translation. After all, if we're going to make the site accessible, shouldn't it be accessible in as many languages as possible? Not to mention that unless abbreviations are written with spaces between the letters, a screen reader can turn abbreviations into mush.

I'll let you know how this project turns out. Hopefully, we can all learn something from it. I've been a huge proponent of the World Wide Wide, seems a shame to leave part of the world out of it.



10:39 am on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Well done Digitalghost! Very timely topic... and an excellent one! You touch on a lot of crucial points, not the least of which is the improper use of alt tags. I've been aware of theis in my own designs and try to make sure that the alt-tag as well as the title tags contain text the enhances information.

The ability to bypass the navlinks sounds like an interesting feature.

One other thing that has stuck with me for a while now relates to Celig's now famous, CSS box model hack that uses the AURAL property VOICE to trick IE into stop parsing code. Could this cause a problem for screen readers? I honestly don't know. Of course, if an alternative AURAL stylesheet is included there sould be no problem as the screen reader will then grab the style sheet specified for it.

I'm anxious to hear more....


1:22 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

I read THE NEW YORK TIMES article that you mentioned, and one thing caught my eye: the fact that audio screen readers will read off all the navigation links (if they're at the top or left side of the page) before getting to the main content. That's something I hadn't thought about, having never used a screen reader.

To some extent, the problem is the screen reader as much as it is the Web site. It should be possible to design a screen reader that can digest a table column full of links on the left side of the page and think "Aha! Navigation links," or that can cache navigation links and not repeat them when the user clicks to another page on the same site. Let's face it: Even if every Website owner were to create only "screenreader-friendly" pages from here on out, there would still be millions of legacy pages on the Web that screenreaders would have to deal with. And, realistically, every Website owner *isn't* going to design "screenreader-friendly" pages until HTML editors, WYSIWYG authoring tools, and content-management systems perform that chore automatically.


2:17 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

the method I'm considering for navigation is to have a top set of navigation in a div hidden by the aural and print stylesheets and a set of bottom navigation that is only hidden in the print stylesheet


3:54 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member digitalghost is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

It is good to see some input on this. :) When I first started on this project I had no idea how many obstacles were involved. The obstacles became apparent quickly after listening to numerous issues from people that were using screen readers.

I'm not sure about the implications of the hack you mentioned Papabaer. I'm kind of at the tip of the iceberg on this and the testing phase is in full swing. We're still running into problems with finding applications that have full CSS2 support. SpeakThis has decent support, but not full support for the specs yet. It does provide a way to enable site-diminished people to surf and listen to content.

Another consideration was whether to use an application like SpeakThis, which gives the web designer complete control over the variables, or to design the site for the end user's own text to speech software. Right now we're opting for allowing that choice to be made by the end user, which means of course that we end up with more code.

Europe, you're correct in your assertion that part of the problem is the screen readers. With no concrete specifications the applications are varied in implementation and usage. That's part of the reason we looked at software like SpeakThis, but that only works for site-diminished surfers, dyslexic surfers and reading impaired surfers. It is a big step for accessibility but not a total solution. We haven't even begun to contemplate the usability/legacy issue but from here on out, accessibility will be a major consideration for at least 3 people I know of. ;)

For those that are interested in web accessibility, you can find quite a bit of information here: [w3.org...] and the W3C specs here: [w3.org...]
This experience has definitely changed the way I look at websites.



4:18 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member tedster is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Seems like absolute positiong with CSS could also be very helpful. It allows the content to be moved to the top of the HTML document and the nav elements to the very end.


6:46 pm on Jun 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

CSS and absolute positioning are very helpful, Tedster. In fact, the W3c recommends you do all your positioning with CSS instead of table layout for accessibility.


2:19 am on Jun 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

The best thing that could happen in terms of promoting accessibility would be for Web designers and content providers to get away from handcoding and use WYSIWYG programs that work in the same way that desktop publishing programs do. The DTP-style authoring tools would create state-of-the-art, standards-compliant code behind the scenes in much the same way as Pagemaker and Quark XPress create PostScript output files away from the prying eyes and fingers of designers or editors. (Example: If there's a workaround to help screen readers bypass a left-hand navigation bar, the program could insert the proper code automatically instead of requiring the graphic designer, author, or Website owner to be familiar with that particular trick.)

NetObjects Fusion took this "Quark or Pagemaker for the Web" approach. The program wasn't without its faults, but the underlying concept--"you create the page, and the program will create an output file--made a lot of sense. It makes even more sense as Web standards become more complex and accessibility becomes trickier to implement by hand.


7:34 pm on Jun 15, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Wanted to add a piece on abbreviations and acronyms: I just tried to get some of my stuff automatically translated and of course it failed to translate some abbreviations. So I guess it's best not to use them or at least use the appropriate tags:

abbr, acronym { border-bottom : 1px dotted #333333 ; }
<abbr title="for example">e. g.</abbr>
<acronym title="Java Virtual Machine">JVM</acronym>

As always with accessibility, it helps your regular/average user as well.


6:36 am on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

<abbr> is not supported by any browser that I know (perhaps it is by MSIE 6?), and I don't think it's even part of the HTML 4/XHTML 1 specs.


7:06 am on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member tedster is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

W3C Reference [w3.org]

It's definitely part of the spec.


2:04 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Works with Opera and Mozilla. Haven't checked with others though I believe it works in all current browsers.


2:31 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member marcia is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

I just now got a link in an email to a university sponsored site funded by a grant that's a great resource: Web Accessibility in Mind [webaim.org].

brotherhood of LAN

2:39 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator brotherhood_of_lan is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

Great thread

Although learning code- I'm going to divert for a few days and read up on W3C, accessibility, and the link Marcia has presented.....looks like I am going to be busy :)

Although less webmasters take accessibility seriously (just like colour blindness as mentioned example in WMW) - it seems that time would be better invested (for results) by reading up more to this topic.

Has there ever been any substantial movement to increase awareness about these accessibility issues or have they always played second fiddle to bleeding edge technology and short-term minded sites sort of thing?

Or has web accessibility always been held in high regard by other webmasters and I have been sitting in ignorance ? :)


3:30 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member marcia is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

BOL, I've seen little mention made compared to other issues. In fact, that link came in with a response from a lady webmasters group, and the original question wasn't even on the subject of accessibility, it was about table cells, alt tags and spacers. It just happened to catch my eye because there was such a fascinating explanation I had to read it a few times.

We've had more attention paid to standards here than I've seen anywhere and it's a challenge. A whole segment of the surfing population seems to get forgotten sometimes.


5:47 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member digitalghost is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

>>A whole segment of the surfing population seems to get forgotten sometimes

Quite true and unfortunately at least in part it is an economics issue. Spending the extra bit of time and money to make a site accessible is discounted because the numbers don't support it. One of my friends was quick to point out that if he goes to the trouble to find a product online, he's apt to purchase it, however, if he can't access the site the sale is lost.

For those interested in the numbers: [afb.org...]

Two of the complaints I hear most often involve pop-ups, (no suprise there) and navigation embedded in Flash. If you use a "skip navigation" link, provide an "access navigation" link. I've been pointed to more than one high profile site that strands users by removing ALL navigation after the first Skip Nav option has been utilized. Use of tables should be restricted to tabular data, again no suprise but tables as layout devices arose more as a result of html limitations than a choice until CSS was embraced. Now that there is a choice, CSS for layout is a W3C recommendation.

Finally, we're working on forms. You know those aggravating drop-downs people use for such things like what state you're from? Well, it's much easier to type TWO letters than to scroll through 50 odd choices and select one. :)



7:11 pm on Jun 16, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Like so many other design topics, this one will really take off when browser support for the existing specs becomes widespread. The aural features already in CSS are truly amazing (multiple voices, pitch and speed, directionality, etc.), but I can't try them out with any equipment that is even semi-standard. I would be *thrilled* to be able to develop simple aural styles for all my pages, and to adjust them all for better aural presentation, but the software support just isn't there yet. Imagine if Mozilla or IE or Opera had a "speak page" command that implemented aural CSS - we would all try it immediately and it would become a routine part of testing. I look forward to that day indeed.

One browser does in fact have a speak page command: iCab for the Mac. Macs have had built in speech capability as far back as the old Mac Plus in the 1980s. Why Apple hasn't jumped on this I don't know, but then they let HyperCard die also. The iCab speech command doesn't use any CSS rules, it just reads the screen; but it can be an instructive way to "look" at your page. If you're a Mac user, give it a try.


8:31 am on Jun 17, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

These issues do pop up in the news now and then, e.g.,

heise online -- 06.05.2002, 18:30
Barrierefreies Internet für Behinderte [heise.de]

The interresting first paragraph states that the "Bundesgleichstellungsgesetz" (law for equal oportunity) came into effect on Mai, 1st. That means all governmental sites will have to be made accessible for people with disabilities. I guess it's similar to "U.S. Section 508 Guidelines".

You know how all these public building have ramps that allow wheel chairs access to the building and lifts/elevators to allow them accessing all/most parts of the building? That's the way, web sites will have to be constructed in the future.

Some more links: I hope you're auto translator works well or that some of the links within these documents point back to English sources. :)

heise online -- 25.03.2002, 18:47
EU-Minister fordern leichteren Internet-Zugang für Behinderte [heise.de]

heise online -- 25.09.2001, 17:27
EU will für Behinderte bessere Websites [heise.de]


4:48 pm on Jun 17, 2002 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Some accssibility issues with WemasterWorld.com (WW): :)
  • There should be a "skip navigation [webmasterworld.com] link at the beginning of the page.
  • When I accidently disabled cookies I was logged in as Guest. When I wanted to reply, I couldn't find the "Post Reply" button.
  • Moreover, links should be text and not images. For example, on cluttered pages, I would press Ctrl+F to search the page for the link (e.g., contact, mail, forum, sitemap). If the link isn't text, I can't find it (at least not as fast as I want). General advice (unrelated to WW), these Links should not carry "exotic" names, like "opinions" instead of "guest book" or "forums".
  • Maybe there could be some check/note on the "Preview" posting page if someone uses here [webmasterworld.com] as thei
    r link text instead of a more meaningfull link description.

    Very short list ... Guess that's why I am still posting. :)

  • rewboss

    5:40 am on Jun 18, 2002 (gmt 0)

    10+ Year Member

    Well, you can't apply a one-size-fits-all policy to everything. I would think, for instance, that using an aural browser to browse an internet bulletin board would be a tedious, lengthy process, as well as a very complex one. Besides which, WW is for webmasters, and since the web is still primarily a visual medium, I can't imagine many partially-sighted webmasters out there.

    Then there's the general issue of the law getting in the way, in nowhere is this more so than in Germany. This particular issue only affects government and public service websites (fair enough, they should be accessible), but knowing German law, how long will it be before all sites have to implement these techniques no matter how irrelevant they may be -- even Herr Müller's Holiday Photo Page? Already, it is illegal for a commercial website to include a form that does not have a reset button. (Reset buttons are user-friendly for lengthy forms, maybe, but to make them a legal requirement...?)

    Whether aural browsers ever catch on will depend not only on how aural-friendly websites are, but on how well the browsers perform. Personally, I'm willing to bet that people will find browsing with them too frustratingly slow, and take-up will be low. A little more likely will be braille readers, which already exist (I once met a schoolgirl who is allowed to use a laptop with a braille reader for her assignments and exams). But they're expensive and tricky to use.


    6:47 am on Jun 18, 2002 (gmt 0)

    WebmasterWorld Senior Member digitalghost is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

    >>I would think, for instance, that using an aural browser to browse an internet bulletin board would be a tedious, lengthy process

    It is. Now. The idea is to make surfing bulletin boards and web sites less tedious.

    >>and since the web is still primarily a visual medium, I can't imagine many partially-sighted webmasters out there

    I can't tell you the number of partially sighted webmasters I now know, there are too many of them but I know ten that are completely blind. In fact, part of the thrust of the current project I'm working on is to encourage and facilitate web site development by people that are faced with visual challenges.

    I don't think the law will be getting in the way of developing sites that are accessible to everyone.

    >>I'm willing to bet that people will find browsing with them too frustratingly slow, and take-up will be low

    Of course they do, because sites aren't designed for them. Braille readers are indeed expensive and they face some of the same obstacles that screen readers face, namely, sites that aren't designed to faciliate their use.

    I certainly can't see the "there aren't many of them out there" attitude in any better light than I can see a site not being compatible with Netscape or Opera. Right now the choices are screen readers and braille readers. Without considering either of them you alienate both of them. Don't let the pursuit of perfection impede progress.



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