We Haven’t Forgotten About Accessibility, Have We?

Posted: October 18, 2010 Comments(10)

Back when Web standards were the talk of the town, accessibility concerns were a hot topic of conversation as well. After all, the accessible nature of Web standards was a good argument to those that didn’t stand behind standards, right? Lately I’ve been fearing that we may have in part lost sight of how truly important accessibility is.

I watched a screencast the other day, focused on experiencing Twitter through a screen reader. If you’ve got a spare 3 minutes, check it out:

The Screenreader Experience Part One from NAPCS on Vimeo.

I was gritting my teeth not only at the frustrating user experience, but at the fact that I know I’ve unconsciously let a few best practices slip when working on recent projects. As stated in the screencast, I’m not trying to pick on Twitter, as I think we can all agree that accessibility sometimes takes a back seat in favor of new hotness.

Accessibility is more than standards

Watching that screencast brought me back to an internal debate I’ve been having for some time. It seems as though advanced interactions on the Web — JavaScript, HTML5, and otherwise — becoming more prevalent may have us a bit blinded to the underlying importance of making our sites accessible.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that the majority of us have never had a one-on-one experience with a screen reader. The leading software is pricey and it runs on Windows. It therefore has a general barrier to entry for the majority of us. There are alternatives, but we as designers realize the importance of using a piece of software in its natural environment. We test in more browsers than we would ever want to, but we do it because we’re professionals and we take pride in our work. That said, we should be testing assistive technology as well, but we don’t.

Is the world moving on, again?

There are more inaccessible, downright bad documents floating around the Web than I care to think about, some created very recently too. I’m hopeful that the world hasn’t forgotten about accessibility, but things like Google pushing the capability to crawl AJAX applications really facilitates bad practice, in my opinion.

I’m not trying to knock Google for doing what it does, but in all honesty the fact that Google didn’t index AJAX-powered applications was one of the last remaining reasons for developers to take accessibility seriously. That’s not to say that AJAX-powered applications can’t be accessible, it just opens the doors to leave the principle on a back burner.

Accessibility received a ton of attention during the ‘original’ standards movement, and I look upon that very fondly. I learned a lot during that era, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten to retain those best practices from time to time. That’s something I’m going to focus on quite heavily in an effort to retrain myself, maybe you can too.

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  1. History repeats itself. The newest, brightest gadgets are far more sexy than making accessible sites and applications. See how @media queries are used to target mobile devices—as long as they come with a modern browser, and how the iPad gives us inaccessible magazine and news ‘apps’ (see Joe Clark.)

    It’s not all bad news, though: The underlying technology—ARIA roles etc.— is far more accessible than it was in the table days.

  2. With the rise of HTML5, CSS3, amazing javascript frameworks, and other great advances in the web, developers are getting hungry for more functionality and put accessibility concerns to the side. The growing use – and likely abuse – of canvas will be ripe with accessibility problems. It would be interesting to see accessibility best practices tied into js frameworks utilizing ajax and in general around the web. In addition, ensuring that content management systems and frameworks like WordPress, CodeIgniter, Rails and similar tie in these best practices for ajaxed areas would also be a big step forward in a more accessible web.

  3. I do believe that there are still lots of people out there who are committed to developing accessible sites and applications. I suspect at some level, some may feel that they’re getting the basics right which is definitely important but may not be “sharpening the saw” when it comes to keeping up with testing and latest practices.

    For those using widgets maintained by major libraries like jQuery UI, Dojo, and YUI, accessibility is often (but not always) an added benefit. Many of the widgets have consideration for ARIA and promote progressive enhancement. Win-win!

  4. I agree 100% with you that this is something important and should remain a priority. Technology has made it much more possible for people with handicaps to communicate with the world than ever before as long as it’s implemented well.

    I for one am always feel the temptation to just focus on the sexy features. But I try to keep myself focused on this by first developing basic web pages without any kind of client scripting before adding that in.

  5. Hi, thanks for the article. I’m a developer interested in making accessible applications, but don’t have any disabilities myself. What’s the best place for me to find information about installing a screen reader I can test with? I use Linux. Thanks!

  6. What about Video Captioning.? What happened in this area? It seems to be overlooked again. PWD’s can benefit from an Accessible Web Site.

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