It’s been a long trip, but we’re almost out of the dark. We finally have browsers that offer substantial support for several technologies established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and other standards bodies. Designers and developers can use many core features of XHTML and CSS and sometimes DHTML without worrying about the hazards of cross–browser chicanery.
As browsers have evolved, it’s become easier to comply with the W3C’s Web Accessibility initiative (WAI) and, in the United States, with the amendments to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 (commonly called “Section 508”).
Better browsers are only the beginning
With the advent of standards–compliant browsers, we need to turn our attention to the tools that help designers and developers build the web. Professional developers and homepage hobbyists alike can code their pages with simple text editors. Hand coding, however, won’t always allow developers to meet tight publication or delivery deadlines.
If web development tools like Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, Adobe’s GoLive and Microsoft’s FrontPage (among countless other applications) do not generate standards–compliant code, the work of convincing the browser vendors to support standards will have been wasted. The creation of content will be trapped in a shell—legible only in a handful of browsers, locking out millions worldwide.
Furthermore, web development software vendors are in a unique position to educate their customers about web standards: what standards are, how they work in the context of the web, and how they help make sites more accessible.
For an insight into their contributions to date, I interviewed representatives of Macromedia, Adobe, UsableNet, and The Web Standards Project and reviewed some of the tools that are available for accessible web development.
Tools make the developer’s deadlines
If web builders must rely on software to do the grunt work of site building, the tools they use should be designed to generate standards–compliant code by default.
“It’s critical that these tools facilitate the creation of valid, standards–compliant sites rather than merely allowing highly sophisticated users to create such sites with extra effort,” said Jeffrey Zeldman, ALA’s creative director and group leader for The Web Standards Project (WaSP), an organization that promotes the use of web standards.
“Though these authoring tools are used by pros, they’re also used by tens of thousands of people who ‘double’ as their organization’s web developer in addition to doing their real job as a marketing person, secretary, graphic designer, and so on.”
The web development tools we have
By allowing users to customize their authoring products, and/or by forming partnerships with companies, web development software vendors have made it possible for designers and developers to produce accessible websites with their existing web tools.
It’s not the “out of the box” solution the WaSP is seeking, but these software vendors are working to educate their customers about standards and accessibility–related options, and to better integrate their products.
“We have worked hard to make this easier, though we are still in the early days in this area, and will continue to work in partnership with developers, partners, and other industry leaders to improve support for creating accessible websites so that these technical barriers can be removed,” said Kevin Lynch, Chief Software Architect for Macromedia.
In addition to including numerous changes like an enhanced user interface, improved rich–media support and a pixel–level snapping tool, Macromedia’s recent version of their vector–based animation tool, Flash MX, takes a giant leap forward in accessibility support.
Through Microsoft Active Accessibility, users with disabilities will be able to access rich-media content with screen readers like Windows–Eyes. Within the authoring environment of Flash, web builders now have the ability to add text descriptions to graphic elements—much like an
alt attribute to the
<img> tag, but also summarizing looping or animated presentations.
UsableNet, Inc., a Macromedia partner, created the free 508 Accessibility Suite, which extends Macromedia Dreamweaver’s functionality to allow checking of web documents’ accessibility against proposed standards.
If you need a major upgrade from Section 508 Suite, UsableNet also offers LIFT and LIFTPro. LIFT works with Dreamweaver by providing far more than the basic analysis that makes up the free Section 508 Suite.
With LIFT, you can manage a set of accessibility rules you want to test for—be it a subset of Section 508 or WAI. After you generate the reports, you can go through the reports item-by-item, changing problem areas of your website almost immediately at the code level of your pages.
UsableNet also has LIFT Online, which allows developers to test an unlimited number of live sites for an annual subscription fee.
Microsoft and Adobe
FrontPage developers should expect a LIFT–like tool from UsableNet in the next three months. Until then, however, Microsoft has formed a strategic relationship with HiSoftware. Owners of FrontPage can get a free licensed copy of that company’s AccVerify SE™.
And even though Adobe’s GoLive has a few accessibility features built into the software, Adobe has partnered with SSB Technologies to provide a licensed copy of InSight LE for more accessibility checking.
Lastly comes Bobby. Started in 1996 by Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), Bobby is an online tool for checking live sites for accessibility issues. It’s not as extensive as other tools on the market, but you can’t beat the cost (free online). For a price, Windows users can also download a software version of Bobby to use offline.
To help their customers keep up with a sometimes overwhelming amount of information about accessibility requirements, Macromedia has published a Solutions Kit that’s free with the purchase of Dreamweaver or Fireworks. The kit includes white papers on accessibility, FAQs, web page templates, product extensions and much more.
Of course, software vendors can only do so much, and web developers must take it upon themselves to learn and implement standards and make their site more accessible.
“I think the unfortunate part is that most people don’t watch people using their website,” said Daniel Brown, Senior Evangelist for Adobe. “I almost wish that GoLive, LiveMotion, and ImageReady had a little wizard that would pop up every now and then and remind people to take into account the variety of their users.”
- Standards and Accessibility
- World Wide Web Consortium
- How to Read (W3C Specs)
- Bobby (accessibility/508 validator)
- W3C validator (for XHTML/HTML markup)
- CSS Validator
- WAI Guidelines
- Section 508 (official U.S. Gov’t Section 508 site)
There are too many web development tools to examine here, so if you don’t see your favorite authoring software listed below, contact their customer support and inquire about their accessibility initiatives.