Latest Accessibility News on Accessify

RIP Jack Pickard

Jack PIckard, photo by Patrick LaukeVery sad news from the accessibility community. Jack Pickard, or @thepickards to his friends on Twitter, passed away this weekend. Not much that I can say personally that hasn’t already been said by others. You will be - no, are - missed, Jack.

If you want to say something for friends/family, leave a comment on his last post on his blog (even if it is about football!)

[Photo by Patrick Lauke]

Filed under: Accessibility
Comments Off Posted by Ian on Monday, January 18, 2010

The blind leading the non-blind

In my previous post I mentioned that I was after a few tips about how I might approach the task of teaching HTML to a 15-year-old blind lad, Harry, who’s at my place of work on work experience. The tips were very handy but I will confess that the day had crept up on me so I did not have as much preparation time as I might have liked. That said, it’s been a very interesting and productive day, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

As suggested in the comments on my previous post, avoiding any kind of IDE and sticking with Notepad seemed to be the order of the day. However, before even trying to build a page from the ground up, I did a ‘before’ version to compare with our ‘after’.

Excel – Save As Web Page

For the first task I got Harry to put some content in a programme that he was reasonably comfortable with. He had used Excel recently, so we started with that, and I asked him to type in a main heading in the first cell, then a sub-heading followed by some content in the following cell, then one more sub-heading and content. We saved this, then added a touch of formatting – bold for headings, different font sizes, then finally saved as a web page. Finally, we checked the page in a browser. As expected (or rather, as ‘engineered’!) the page looked fine but had no information about structure, no headings found on the page. At this point I emphasised that this is typical of the kind of result when pages are created in this way using ‘Save as Web Page’ and that often the fault of unintelligible web sites was not JAWS itself but rather the developer who put the page together poorly.

First web page

I next guided Harry towards Notepad and I began with a simple structure, explaining that pages are wrapped inside <html></html> and then split between <head> and <body>. I deliberately skipped mention of doctypes on the basis that if this is the first thing that a blind 15-year-old encounters and has to get their head around, that’s a big hurdle! Likewise, I omitted all non-essential html element attributes. Keep it clean, keep it simple.

What I tried to do was follow the same approach as I cover in my beginners book, on the basis that Harry’s helpers could later refer back to the free chapters that are available on SitePoint and be able to make sense of what he learned on the day.

Very quickly I’d explained about the importance of proper headings and paragraphs and Harry was soon recreating his page from scratch using <h1> and <p>, each time creating the opening and closing tag and then back-tracking with the arrow keys until he was in the right place to type. I was surprised at how easily he could navigate around the plain text document to precisely where he needed to be.

Once he’d got the page together with a <title>, an <h1> and the pair of <h2> and <p> content, we tried that in the browser and the result was immediately clear. He could instantly tell the difference in meaning and wasn’t bothered at all that it had taken longer for him to produce that; in fact he seemed to be itching to learn more. So that’s what we did …

Adding lists

Next up I mentioned lists and asked him to hazard a guess at how you’d mark up an unordered list. He said ul almost before I finished my sentence and also predicted that an ordered list would be an ol. Never mind me leading him, in this case the blind was leading the non-blind in places! Soon, we had some lists on the page which he could here as bulleted list items or numbered.

Creating a web site

Finally, to make this really feel like a web page, we then copied the pages a few times then edited them such that the first page was an index page linking to the other two pages (in which we had edited out content so that each page represented a write-up of his first two days’ work experience)

What about the visuals?

What about them? I didn’t even think about the CSS, as it really was not relevant at this stage. I did explain to Harry and to his helper that the document could be styled afterwards, but the key thing was to create something that made sense, first and foremost, and used the right markup.

So, how did he do?

Well, I have to say that I am super-impressed with the progress. In just over three hours and with my guidance, Harry had created a 3-page web site having never written a single HTML tag. He could really appreciate the benefit of doing this as he listened back to what he created (and we also noted that his clean markup was almost exactly a 10th of the size of the far less useful markup that Excel had generated when saving as a web page!). Despite the intentional omission of the doctype, he had documents that were valid XHTML and despite not being able to see the markup, his tidy use of carriage return after each tag made the markup massively better and easier to read than that of coders I know who’ve been doing it for years!

All-in-all, I was thoroughly impressed with the speed that he picked this up, although I could also tell that he was starting to get a bit tired by the end of it with all the mental code juggling he’d be doing. This lad has real promise, but unfortunately has no computer at home with which to continue learning, and therefore no copy of JAWS (as the family is poor); at school, his exposure to IT means the most he gets at one time is an hour. So, I’d really love to find a way to be able to help him out in some way, to make sure that this promising start doesn’t come to a sudden end. Fingers crossed on that front (and once again, all ideas are greatly appreciated).

Filed under: Accessibility
Comments (19) Posted by Ian on Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teaching a Blind Person HTML?

I’m after some ideas on something here. Tomorrow I will be sitting down with a lad who’s here on work experience who is completely blind. He’s been doing some assessment of various web sites over the last couple of days but tomorrow I have got to try to teach him a bit about building web pages.

I aim to do this very simply but in all honestly, despite having written a book for the absolute beginner on this very topic, I’ve never thought about how I explain such concepts to a blind user. Sure, I understand the issue for blind people consuming this information, but not creating it.

Do I just use Notepad?

Is DreamWeaver a good idea?

Really, this is an open question (admittedly with little time for replies!) but I would appreciate any thoughts people have.


Filed under: Accessibility
Comments (9) Posted by Ian on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Interview with Accessible Twitter creator Dennis Lembree

Accessify recently spoke to founder of Accessible Twitter Dennis Lembree, who is also behind Web Overhauls and web accessibility podcast Web Axe. We wanted to find out more about the background to Accessible Twitter, what prompted it and where it might go next. Here’s what Dennis had to say:

Accessify: Dennis, congratulations on Accessible Twitter:

Dennis: Thank you. It’s a fun and challenging project.

A: I wanted to ask a few questions about the site/service, largely because of a comment I read from Doug Bowman about the site a little while back, namely "Why a whole new design for this?". When I read that I thought two things: 1) Doug has a point and conversely 2) Why knock it? There’s room for all sorts of UI styles. This got me thinking what it was that you originally wanted to achieve with the site. So perhaps that’s the best place to start:

D: My original idea was to keep it similar to Twitter’s architecture, but the more I developed, the more I realized that it wasn’t going to work. I encountered, in my opinion, many usability and accessibility issues, the biggest being inconsistent navigation. There are also many links that are hidden and/or require JavaScript to even reach them. Since these issues relate directly to layout and design, I decided to break out and just do what I felt was easiest for the user.*

A: What were (or still are) the biggest hurdles faced by people trying to use Twitter? What types of people is it affecting?

D: Web accessibility is for everyone, not only for the 10% or so of folks with some type of disability, but also for those with technical limitations such as low-band connections, a broken mouse, and blocked JavaScript. That said, the most obvious are the visually impaired, especially blind users. It very difficult for screen reader when a page lacks proper headings, semantic mark-up, and **contains a lot of Ajax.

A: Were you asked to do this by anyone? Or was it, perhaps, inspired by the work that anyone else has done for similar services?

D: An ex-coworker (and friend) of mine actually suggested that I do it. I really enjoy web development and using the web. And my specialty is web standards and accessibility, so this was a perfect project for me. My wife and kids were out of town for a couple weeks at the time, back in January, so that gave me the time to do all the groundwork.

A: Given that Twitter is such a simple service, in terms of functionality/purpose, does it surprise you that it has accessibility issues?

D: Not at all. Unfortunately, the majority of web sites and web applications are still not web accessible, especially in the U.S., where in general, we are behind countries like Australia and many European countries. Overall, I think there’s a misconception that a "Web 2.0" site or app can’t be cool or fun and be accessible at the same time. On the contrary, I find that it’s quite possible. It’s mostly a matter of planning it from the beginning, and implementing progressive enhancement.

A: And what does the fact that Twitter can’t get it perfect say about the wider state of web apps?

D: It says they’re pretty poor quality, frankly. is extremely off-course as far as web accessibility goes. Basic things such as proper use of headings and keyboard access are not implemented. I received an email from a blind user who really enjoys Accessible Twitter. He even asked, I think jokingly, if I could make an accessible Facebook, which is also terribly inaccessible.

A: What’s the best bit of feedback that you have received about Accessible Twitter since launching it? I’m thinking of the kind of comment that makes you think "Yep, those late nights and long protracted periods of shunning conversation and socialising (real, not virtual) were all worth it"?

D: I’ve received tremendous feedback from both users and fellow developers and accessibility advocates. Check out the Accessible Twitter homepage for quotes, mostly from Tweets. But I’d say the best, and most personal, was the following messsage from a blind user:

"Wow! You have really made my day, and I am smiling once again. I am so excited that I found your Accessible Twitter. Now I feel that I can be in the cutting edge of everything that is happening in the Twitter Universe."

A: How did you find working with the Twitter API? Did it present any issues regarding accessibility itself? For example, data that you might dearly want to make use of that was not exposed/available to use?

D: For the most part, it’s been pretty good, and they’re still working hard on it. This year the now separate search API is suppose to be updated to work more like the main API. By far he biggest problem I’ve experienced with the API is the of the speed and consistency of the data being served up; most of us know that it can very often times be extremely slow.

A: What’s the state of play with Twitter clients out there? Are any of those readily accessible, or even slightly?

D: I’m not aware of any other web-based Twitter clients, not to mention accessible ones. @SarahM is writing a book about Twitter and actually called me for input on Twitter and web accessibility and will be referencing to Accessible Twitter. She couldn’t find any other resources, at least not quickly enough. As most of us know, there are many desktop and mobile Twitter applications, but I can’t speak to the accessibility of those. Actually, I did try one desktop Twitter client, and it is totally not keyboard accessible.

A: Out of interest, what clients do you use (when you are not ‘eating your own dog food‘ as it were)?

D: Ha ha, they used to say that phrase at Quicken Loans. Anyway, I haven’t tried any other Twitter clients until very recently. I’ve started checking out TweetDeck. The groups feature is great, and you can import your Facebook feed. And yes, this is the app that not keyboard accessible.

A: Going back to Doug’s comment, did you consider effectively ‘cloning’ Twitter then accessifying it? Or was it a conscious decision not to because of possible legal reasons (copying, plagiarism, perhaps because it might seem to be a fake web site, even)?

D: I never had intention to "clone" the site. To reiterate from an earlier question, I first tried to stay with the main layout of the Twitter site, but gave up on that pretty quickly, mostly because of the navigation issues. In addition, web site design and functionality can change so quickly, it’s probably best to do what you think is right, and stick with that, and that’s what I did.

A: Have you spoken/chatted with Doug about this since? I ask this because he has since announced that he is going to work for Twitter and perhaps this constitutes as ‘official blessing’ to do what he suggested?

D: I have not spoken to him. I don’t feel that I need any approvals because I’m confident that I’m as qualified as anyone to do the site, well, nearly anyone. Like most things, the only real issue is time.

A: What if Twitter changed its site and addressed all of your accessibility concerns, fixed the lot and effectively negated the need for Accessible Twitter. Would you feel annoyed that you’d done the work for nothing or would you feel happy that the work had perhaps caused them to sort their own site out?

D: I highly doubt that would happen, at least not anytime soon. The realm of web accessibility has so many complexities and layers, it can be pretty tricky to address all of them. This is especially true when you have to retro-fit a rapidly growing application. If Twitter was able to do it, I would be quite impressed and hope their site could be an example of "the right way" to build a web app .

A: Going back to the previous question, if they did sort out their issues, would you rebrand/repurpose your own to some other means or simply leave as-is for those who may have gotten used to that version as ‘their Twitter’?

D: I don’t think I’d change it much. Just continue doing what I’m doing. The main goal will always be making basic Twitter functionality accessible. But in addition, there are several additional features that users may like to use and more to come.

A: What’s the coolest feature of Accessible Twitter?

D: Good lead in, ha ha. A few come to mind, such as the retweet, but I’d have to say the audio signals, or earcons, when entering a tweet are the most fun and valuable. When a user hits 30, 15, and 5 characters left, audio place announcing the number left. Like @v tweeted, he "likes it when the computer talks to him".

A: Finally, has doing this made you think of other similar sites/ ideas that you might want to have a go at accessifying in a similar way?If so, can you share any of this with us?

D: Facebook. Anyone want to form a start-up to do that?!

A: Thanks for your time, Dennis, and for the work that you put in on Accessible Twitter.

D: You’re welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

You can find Accessible Twitter on the web here or follow Accessible Twitter on Twitter itself - via accessible Twitter if you like! Boy, that was a confusing closing statement. Dennis is also on Twitter as himself in the guise of dennisl.

Filed under: Accessibility
Comments (6) Posted by Ian on Thursday, April 23, 2009

What the accessibility world needs is Stephen Fry to get a poke in the eye

And a darned good one, at that, so that he’s temporarily unable to use the seemingly endless collection of gadgets that he is so renowned for owning. But why should I say such a mean-spirited thing? Isn’t this person a national treasure whom I’m suggesting doing a frightful mischief to? And why, pray tell, is the very way that I am writing this post somehow being imbued with the very embodiment (oh that I should be so bold) of Mr Stephen Fry? If I’m not mistaken, I can even hear him saying these very words in my ear as I type and picture him mouthing the sentences that appear to be spewing forth on to the page. I’m not quite sure if I can keep up these linguistic gymnastics.

I’m referring to the wossy effect and by that I mean that after Stephen Fry appeared on Jonathan’s return (inaugural?) Friday Night show discussing Twitter, he is now the darling, nay the poster boy, of microblogging service Twitter. He was, by all accounts, a must-follow celeb long before that TV appearance - and one who does really seem to get what he’s talking about. When Stephen Fry talks, 84,000+ people listen (at the latest count). Or read, if one is to keep the pedantic nature of this blog post up. Or do they all read? Perhaps there are people who hear Stephen Fry’s tweets, albeit from a rather robotic voice that really doesn’t do the chap’s fine speaking voice the justice it truly deserves. Of course, there are such people - blind users, primarily, but perhaps others with less severe vision impairments who may also need some other form of assistance also. But I am rather going off the point here, that being that Stephen Fry has, by design or by accident, become a rather unlikely voice for the technorati of the world. Who would have thought that this mellifluously-voiced thesp could, with just a small handful of (sub 140-character) comments (to wit: "shockingly bad") about a mobile phone cause such a worry to the marketing people at Blackberry? Just as well that another much-followed Twitter user is able to counteract the negatives with his apparent love for said device?

Getting back to my point - not that it’s clear I even have one yet! - what I’m alluding to in the headline is that if someone like Stephen Fry were to suddenly lose the ability to use one or more of his much-loved gadgets, laptops or whatever, his frustrations with inaccessible devices and web sites would very soon become very public knowledge; he would, I’m sure, soon be explaining to the world at large exactly what these frustrations are and would possibly even have a solution or two up his tweed-clothed sleeve.

We may have our ‘web accessibility rock stars’ who have their respective followings, but it is still somewhat akin to me saying “I’m world famous … in Swindon” (also not true). Outside of this little bubble, we have no real power to speak of and can quite easily go about our shopping chores without being bothered for autographs. Even bona-fide web standards gods like Jeffrey Zeldman are unknown to the vast majority of people, shocking as it may seem to some, making it a genuine surprise when ‘normal’ people recognise them!

Stephen could talk about accessibility issues and 84,000 people, at least, would listen (or read). And perhaps some of those 84,000 people would the re-tweet what they learn, others might go and investigate further. A large majority would still ignore it and carry on searching for the next Twitter-spawned link to that day’s YouTube must-see funny, but the message of what it is to be denied access to information on the web would spread further. It wouldn’t be the first time that Mr Fry has found an unfortunate injury get in the way of using some piece of technology or other (I believe this broken arm caused some problems in getting together an episode of his podcast, or ‘podgramme’ as I believe is the moniker he prefers).

So, what I’m saying is if you see Stephen Fry, give him a poke in the eye (preferably both) but after you do, ask the good chap if he wouldn’t mind awfully conjuring up a blog post (or blessay) about the dashed awkward consequences of this terrible eye-poking incident.

Want to help? Share this link, Twitter it, pass it on however you see fit. If Twitter is, like Mr Fry, your cup of Earl Grey, please add this hashtag: #accessiblefry

Legal bit - of course I’m not suggesting anyone actually harm him! Stephen - if you want to skip the injury part, that’s cool, but we’d really love it if you were able to spread the word about web accessibility on different devices/platforms.

Credit where it’s due - Henny had this idea at the beginning of the (Chinese New) year, and I was just inspired to put a little something together that might, with any luck, go some way to achieving one of her New Year’s Resolutions

Comments (13) Posted by Ian on Thursday, January 29, 2009

So near to the finish line …

No, I’m not referring to the election (even though that’s technically correct), nor am I referring to the Accessify redesign/rebuild (which is almost as correct!), rather the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0 which have now moved to Proposed Recommendation status.

Comments on this version are open only until 2 December, so if there are any burning issues that you still feel strongly about, you have just the slimmest of chances to get them addressed (although those chances may be about as slim as the chances of a McCain win by the end of today … but stranger things have happened. Basically, the focus of review comments at this stage will be those by W3C members, but anyone can try submitting comments).

Here’s what the W3C had to say (complete with the appropriate links for your browsing pleasure):

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Working Group has published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 as a Proposed Recommendation, and published updated Working Drafts of Understanding WCAG 2.0, Techniques for WCAG 2.0, and How to Meet WCAG 2.0. WCAG defines how to make Web sites, Web applications, and other Web content accessible to people with disabilities. Comments are welcome through 2 December 2008. Read the announcement, Overview of WCAG 2.0 Documents, and about the Web Accessibility Initiative.

In case you were wondering, ‘Proposed Recommendation’ means that the technical material of WCAG 2.0 is complete and it has been implemented in real sites, so we’re talking real-world scanarios, not theoretical.

Filed under: Accessibility, W3C, WAI, WCAG
Comments (2) Posted by Ian on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

ARIA on the fast track?

As Birmingham bruiser Brucey pointed out over the weekend, the W3C are keen for web developers to start embracing WAI-ARIA techniques now. As he said:

The Web Accessiiblity Initiative’s Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, WAI-ARIA is a simple way to add information to HTML that can make Ajax applications accessible. It’s being supported by all the big four browsers and screenreaders are starting to support it. … Therefore, although the specification is still formally in “Working Draft” status, the W3C are encouraging authors to use it now.

This is excellent news, although he raises the issue that to use ARIA you do have to add in non-standard attributes that will then trigger HTML validator failures. But, as one commenter pointed out, ARIA techniques assume use of JavaScript therefore you may as well add them in using JavaScript which will then stop the validator bitching about your errors.

I’m keen to put this in to use with something, but have been so careful to avoid AJAX and the like for some time that it’s actually quite a difficult thing to break out of that mindset. But the moment that I do see an opportunity, I’ll be implementing ARIA.

Filed under: Accessibility, WAI-ARIA
Comments (1) Posted by Ian on Monday, September 29, 2008

Adding to the chorus: Save the UT Accessibility Institute

Apologies for those who’ve already seen this posted elsewhere (lateness excuse: on holiday, no internet etc etc). It should be no surprise that it’s getting so much coverage, though - the Accessibility Institute at the University of Texas has been a leading light in this field of research. When I think of the people whose opinions I value the most with regards web accessibility, a large number of them came from this very place (including, of course, its founder Dr John Slatin who recently passed away). If the institute were not able to open its doors in future, I strongly believe that web accessibility as a discipline would suffer. If accessibility is important to you, I encourage you to go sign the petition now. All it takes is a moment of your time.

Filed under: Accessibility
Comments Off Posted by Ian on Monday, September 8, 2008

Firefox 3’s Lovely WAI-ARIA Goodness

It almost slipped my mind - I was too busy marvelling at the speed and efficiency with which Firefox 3 handle multiple open tabs compared to Firefox 2 - but with that browser’s v3 release last week came a big accessibility enhancement in the form of WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) support. As stated on RNIB’s Web Access Centre Blog:

This is an exciting time in the browser area as support for the Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) suite gathers pace in the next generation of browsers. Browsers with support, partial support and planned support for WAI-ARIA include Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 3, Opera and Web Kit based browsers including Apple’s Safari.

Things are looking better and better on this front, and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming articles on WAI-ARIA that WACblog promises.

Filed under: Accessibility, WAI-ARIA
Comments Off Posted by Ian on Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BBC Withdrawing Some Microformats over Accessibility Concerns

There are some web sites that, when they start to use certain certain technologies, it becomes a ’seal of approval’. When a massive site like the BBC starts using technology X, it’s a fairly good indication that the technology involved has gone through various assessments before being declared safe. The Microformats team have probably (and this is just an assumption, don’t shoot me!) used said web site as an example of adoption of the hCalendar Microformat (for marking up event dates/times), but now it seems that the BBC are having second thoughts.

The announcement on Monday that the BBC is withdrawing hCalendar markup from its schedules must come as a blow to the Microformats supporters. For the accessibility community as a whole, it must be a good thing. On numerous occasions, accessibility experts have pressed for changes to the ABBR design pattern - the underlying source of the problem - such that screen reader users are not subjected to incomprehensible information when coming across the abbreviated (or rather machine-readable) version of the date/time.

Let’s hope that the BBC’s withdrawal of hCalendar as a whole, for the time being, spurs the Microformats group into coming up with a workable solution to the problem once and for all, rather than sticking to their guns and hoping the protests will simply go away.

[View Patrick's post on the topic - and comments - at WaSP]

Filed under: Accessibility
Comments (1) Posted by Ian on Wednesday, June 25, 2008