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Issue № 98

This HTML Kills: Thoughts on Web Accessibility

by Published in Browsers, CSS, HTML, Industry, Accessibility

When I started out as a web designer, accessibility seemed quite a simple and achievable goal: provide alternative descriptions for all your graphics, and make sure the background colour and text color have good contrast. Accessibility was easy, took little extra work, and the resulting page didn’t look different from millions of other first-generation web pages out there, i.e., dull, grey and unattractive.

Time has moved on and accessibility on the web is no longer simple. From being a largely text-based medium that was easily accessible via a variety of high- and low-tech devices, the web has now become a rich multimedia environment.

As a result, much of it is now inaccessible to a large section of the community. To illustrate just how serious the problem has become, try this little exercise: go to the web page for Bobby, the online accessibility checker, at http://www.cast.org/bobby/. In the web form provided, type in the address of your favourite site –  and stand back.

What you will get is a stream of accessibility errors, a slew of recommendations, and a bucketful of techniques to help make the site conform with recently released accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) . These guidelines consist of two main documents: the accessibility guidelines themselves, and a techniques manual.

What the W3C team has produced is a set of useful documents telling you all you need to know: alternative text for graphics, tab orders on your input forms, keyboard shortcuts for hyperlinks, key combinations to make form input easier, summaries at the tops of tables, and more. Frankly, it is a lot of work to make your website fully conform with these guidelines.

And that’s fine for me. I have the motivation and a reputation to protect. The important question is, how do you persuade other site designers to use the guidelines and make their sites accessible? And is that a realistic goal?

It is my belief that, in the short term at least, it is not –  it’s almost impossible. “We” can campaign all we like to raise the issues. But given the current tools (i.e. WYSIWYG web editors), current web browsers, and current batch of HTML writers, we will be fighting a losing battle.

From Cynthia Waddel in “The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation:”

The digital divide in web page transactions and the Internet environment has bred a host of additional problems for people with disabilities. For example, commercial web-authoring applications lack access tool kits for webmasters to correct accessible web design problems. In fact, many current web-authoring tools on the market make it extremely difficult to even design an accessible web page.

The scarcity of tools also contributes to the lack of education among programmers and web authors on why and how to code an accessible web page.

It’s about Communication

Even when the need for accessible design is understood, many web page authors regard it as a constraint on their ability to design attractive sites for their clients. David Siegel, an early web designer,  wrote a provocative and entertaining article: “The Web is Ruined and I Ruined It.

The Web is a visual medium –  not to design is to design. Personally, I’d rather leave the design up to professional designers than programmers, but hey –  that’s me. It’s easy to be proud of your Web site. It’s another thing to have people say it was visually appealing and easy to find everything.

David Siegel is a smart man, and, if I read him right, is in favour of a web which divorces content from presentation (i.e., a more accessible web). But Siegel also sees the problems which make this a difficult goal to achieve in the short term:

We will have to wait before the tools catch up…HTML isn’t PostScript. It’s hard to build tools that don’t suck on top of a set of standards being used in a giant tug-of-war between big companies with millions at stake. Until good tools exist, web designers will continue to be used as human shields in the browser wars, with our customers being the big losers as they pay us to make two separate versions of everything and serve HTML out of custom databases.

Web pages are about communication, design is about communication. Over many years, the publishing world has developed a visual language which encapsulates sets of unspoken rules, e.g., serif fonts for blocks of text, sans-serif for headlines, short line length, the importance of white space, different styles for different functions, techniques for drawing the reader’s eye into a story. It is these (in many cases unspoken) rules that give a uniform look to much of the printed material we read every day.

It took a while for web designers to realise that all the accumulated knowledge of “physical” publishing wasn’t made obsolete once the web came along. Web pages are, after all, still about communication.

As a result, many of today’s sites are starting to have elements common to the look of their printed brothers and sisters. Web pages that look similar to printed publications share all the their trademark elements: multi-column text, in-line graphics, drop caps, horizontal and vertical rules, background images. This can all be done with a bit of HTML trickery.

And that’s all to the good. Publishers use these techniques because they work. It’s easier for the reader to get the information from the document into the brain via the eyes.

But every trick used to apply these techniques to a web document can make the resulting page more inaccessible.

HTML, as we know, was never meant to be a tool for page design. Right from the start, web content and graphics have been shoe-horned between ill-fitting and repurposed tags. All tags become layout rather than structure: blockquote to give a right and left margin to your paragraphs, invisible tables with invisible graphics in their cells to ensure exact alignment of page elements. The table has become ubiquitous for laying out pages. It is these very workarounds which will –  when you put your site through Bobby –  throw up a rash of accessibility errors.

Style sheets came along to solve these problems and point towards the holy grail of content being divorced from formatting. In theory, style sheets can do it all and do it better. But browser support is so inconsistent that only a fool would put his/her total trust in them without another page full of extra code to determine which one of the hundreds of browser versions the user is viewing the page on. {Editor: Not necessarily. Watch this space.}

The Future

In spite of all I’ve said, I am not pessimistic about the future. Exciting developments on the horizon will make all this confusion and difficulty a distant memory. Today’s problems are the necessary precursor to future clarity. It’s all part of the development from a crude and immature way of exchanging information to a simpler, cleaner model.

“We” can win (and I mean everybody), but not in the short term –  not until we get the point where the idea of writing HTML is a thing of the past. In my ideal future, nobody will write HTML documents; they will just write documents. These documents will be multi-purpose. If you want it in audio, you will get it in audio; if you want the PDF version, you get the PDF version; and if you want the web version, you’ll get the web version –  though, come to think of it, all these versions will be web versions.

The notion that I am marginalising a certain group of people by providing a text alternative rather than going out of my way to make sure the main web page is accessible to everyone will be meaningless. There will be no main version, just the version that suits you.

Your Microwave on the Internet

Another pressure which will hasten the move towards more accessible web pages is the proliferation of devices which are now connecting to the Internet. In Japan, Sega’s latest games console has a built-in modem and browser, giving it the ability to access the web. The latest personal organisers such as the Palm Pilot are Internet-enabled, as telephones, television, in-car information systems and household appliances are or soon will be.

It is predicted that the number of personal computers as a percentage of the overall devices connected to the Internet will fall dramatically over the next couple of years. Back in 1999, The Register took its lead from Larry Ellison the CEO of Oracle:

What people want, he said, is simple, inexpensive hardware that functions as a window on to the Net. The PC was ludicrously complex with stacks of manuals, helplines and IT support needed to make it function…. The Internet will make the choice operating system unimportant.

After all is said and done, creating an accessible site is about making sure all Internet aware devices can access the information you have put on the web. Whether it be a braille reader or a business executive’s Internet-enabled car, the issues are the same.

Divorce presentation from content and let the end-user display the information in a way which suits them and the device they are using. Make your web pages inaccessible and a large part of your market could be beyond your reach. That pressure alone should ensure some change.

The Impact of Legislation

Anti-discrimination legislation in Britain and in America is increasing awareness of accessibility. The People with Disabilities Act in America makes it illegal for companies offering services on the web to discriminate against people with disabilities. There are already examples of citizens taking action against companies with inaccessible websites. As far back as November 1988, a San Jose man filed a formal complaint against the Metropolitan Transport Commission in his local area because he could not read the bus and train timetable that they had been posted on their site. More recent examples of litigation include the National Federation for the Blind filing a suit against America Online (settled out of court) and the successful law suite against the Sydney Olympic Committee (read a great account of this).

Britain has the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. The government has a new commission to protect the rights of disabled people in Britain. The commission has the power to bring cases against those who breach the codes of the Act. An item in Internet Magazine noted:

Companies that provide inaccessible Websites could be in as much trouble as shops that don’t have space for wheelchairs. (Internet Magazine, July 1999 ISSN-6428)

And Finally ... XML

HTML will still be with us for some time to come, and –  despite the difficulty –  I would encourage Web designers to take heed of the WAI guidelines and strive to make their Web sites accessible to as wide an audience as possible –  after all it is in your/your clients’ interests. I think the key to change in the longer term however lies in the growth of XML (Xtensible Markup Language) as a way of storing and transporting information.

With XML we can separate content from layout. Content becomes “intelligent.” We no longer have headers and paragraphs; we have a way of describing what those headers and paragraphs contain. With XML, you can display and repurpose your content in whatever way you like: Braille, audio, PDF, HTML, and beyond. For a good explanation and description of the power of XML, read “XML and the Second-Generation Web” by Jon Bosak and Tim Bray.

In the near future, a significant amount of content will be stored as XML. Whatever document creation tool you use (Microsoft Word, Pagemaker, QuarkXPress) the resulting data will be stored internally and invisibly as XML. This is already happening in the software market.

When these technologies, together with improved web authoring practices, deliver a web that is accessible to all, the old saying will finally come true: content will be king.

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