JIM DORAN

Web Accessibility at Refresh Baltimore

Mike Brenner and Reinhard Stebner

Reinhard Stebner provided an engaging talk on Web Accessibility this evening at MICA. This post contains a few of my favorite highlights. I’d like to note here that Bill Mill is a good sport.

I’ve read and thought a lot about Web Accessibility. I’ve used JAWS to test sites and worked to make Flash more accessible in client projects. Yet, it’s so valuable to watch a skilled, unsighted user like Mr. Stebner navigate a system. Just as no two people will use Microsoft Excel the exact same way, there are many ways to use JAWS and Windows Eyes. And just as each Web browser handles CSS slightly differently, accessibility software varies from product to product.

Jaws will ignore display:none; in css and Windows Eyes will not. Instead, Mr. Stebner suggests using positioning to handle things we don’t want to be visible (top:0; left:-9999;) and then dealing with the hidden items contextually with labels.

He emphasized usability vs. accessibly and demonstrated how sites can be technically accessible and yet hardly usable. Having a highly usable site is a win for everyone. That’s common sense and therefore not always achieved. Headings should be used appropriately, as many people will navigate a page through its headings. They should be meaningful and used correctly. Specifying a tab-index is a bad idea, as it makes the arrow-key functionality not work and many people use arrow keys to navigate content. Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

The item that gave me the most to think about is the idea of using lists to organize links. In HTML, a list is a collection of things. Putting a navigation structure, which is just a collection of hyperlinks, in a list is supposed to allow screen readers to pause between each link instead of reading all the links as a sentence. Semantically, this makes sense. We use HTML to apply meaningful mark-up to content – making things lists seems like a good idea. Yet, there’s no easy way to identify a list as a set of links, so a page with 12 sets of links can be very confusing. He demonstrated this with Jaws.

We touched on ARIA as a way to help deal with some of this, and instead of using lists for links, he would like to see more <div> and <spans> used.

I’m really glad I had a chance to see some examples of what works well and doesn’t with JAWS. And, I didn’t know about a JAWS feature called Virtual View, which allows the visitor to access extra information about the DOM, like class and id names. This supports the notion that class and id names should be as semantic as HTML itself.

It was a great talk. Please note that Mr. Stebner also provides accessibility consultations, should anyone want to hire him for his services.

The Future of Web Standards

AEA BOSTON
I’m having a sleepover in the Philadelphia airport, as I write this. It’s  somewhere between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.  Why? Well, Twitter, of course! See, there was a tweet that said:

We’re giving away 5 free student tickets to  the first 5 students or faculty who include #aeaedu in a Tweet. Hurry!

I did. And so did a lot of other people, and I figured I missed the boat.  Then:

Jim, Did you get my message?

BINGO! I went to gray, rainy Boston on Monday. It was, as before, a really good conference. Friendly, like-minded people, excellent food and a sense that we are all working toward a common cause.  And I’ll never pass up the chance to talk with Mr. Zeldman while he’s trying to use the bathroom.

The “standardistas” emphasized:

  • Web sites do not need to look the same in all browsers.
  • Having a “content strategy” is important, because content is king.
  • Design with CSS in the browser and not Photoshop
  • Use a Grid
  • Flash, particularly sIFR, can solve typographic issues
  • User testing is vital

This is standard issue stuff (pun intended), and was highly emphasized at last year’s conference. And the one before that.

Which made me wonder – what’s actually NEW? The web is moving quickly. A lot has happened since the last conference I attended (last August).  Why aren’t we, as designers,  talking about it?

We have jQuery, which is so easy to use, it feels like cheating. It handily repairs shortcomings of IE6 issues, allows us to easily implement AJAX and JSON solutions and gives us ways to enhance our designs with expedient virtuosity previously unthinkable  for most front-end designers.

And, what about Chrome? How does bing.com enter into the SEO conversation? How is touch computing affecting web design and mobile devices? How does Flash fit into our conversation, aside from solving typographic issues and video streaming? And Flex?  It does some pretty amazing stuff. What the hell is the W3 actually doing? And, let’s talk about HTML5.

Another observation – every other person I talked with had something to do with Higher Education. Is there a curriculum for Web Standards?  I think it’s time to expand the discussions at Standards based conferences –  the world knows that we strive to keep content separate from formatting and behavior. As a teacher, I see things shift in 5 to 6 month cycles – each new class entering my room knows more than the one that just left. Our conferences should keep up, too.

I’m really glad I got to go – the design portions of the conference were inspiring, as always.  And it’s refreshing to get out of the office (hospital)  and be with other designers, to inspire each other and connect with a community.

So, as I sit here in this empty, quiet airport during the middle of the night, I wonder…what’s next?