Designers have always had a vital interest in affordance, a term Donald Norman made famous in The Design of Everyday Things and later brought to the user interface design community in Alan Cooper’s About Face.
Affordance allows us to look at something and intuitively understand how to interact with it. For example, when we see a small button next to a door, we know we should push it with a finger. Convention tells us it will make a sound, notifying the homeowner that someone is at the door. This concept transfers to the virtual environment: when we see a 3D-shaped button on a web page, we understand that we are supposed to “push” it with a mouse-click.
Affordance only gets you halfway there#section2
A problem arises when someone easily understands how to use an object, but cannot execute the action required to do so. Most people who use wheelchairs understand how stairs are used, but affordance cannot help them climb a staircase.
In contrast, wide, automatic doors in grocery stores can be understood and used by people with and without special access needs. We call this combination of affordance and all-embracing accessibility “universal design.” In universal design, perceived affordance—that is, the implicit understanding of how to interact with an object—actually coincides with the user’s ability to execute the action. Universal design is, therefore, inherently accessible.
Some designers feel that universal design limits their creativity. To be universal, they argue, the design must be approached from the “neediest-user” perspective. To design a phone handset inteded for both senior citizens and younger customers, we must design for the senior citizens’ needs first: large number pads, large display, etc. And if we do that, younger customers, who expect “trendier” design, may not purchase the phone. This design approach results in a product that works for only one target group—we’ve achieved accessible design, but not universal design. And while accessible design is important, it doesn’t reach everyone in the same way, so we should logically strive for universal design whenever possible, and concentrate on accessible design only when necessary.
The accessible design dilemma#section3
What does this distinction mean in web design, where “universal design” and “accessible design” are often considered synonymous? Consider that accessible design elements include video captions and text transcriptions of audio files, implemented as necessary alternatives to the original content. Structural markup, on the other hand, is a powerful universal design technique. Organizing content logically using meaningful headings such as
h2 creates affordance, because readers habitually scan headings before reading the text. A designer can create distinct heading styles, but the individual user is the one who ultimately accepts or rejects the designer’s ideas. Users can disable images and turn off or replace styles on the fly.
Still, for many designers, the unpredictability of interaction produced by universal design can be troubling. Sentiments such as “I have no idea how a screen reader works” demonstrate that as a design community, we still do not fully understand what accessibility—or universality—actually means. To progress, we must change the way we approach this task.
Missing the point#section4
Accessibility is commonly touted via some text and a small hyperlink that leads to Section 508 at the bottom of a web page, a practice which upholds the spirit of the law. It usually reads something like this: “We are committed to making our site accessible and continue to test and modify the site for accessibility. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any problems accessing any of our content.” Some quick accessibility checks reveal that many site owners and developers consider the second part of that statement a convenient “get out of jail free” card.
Developers sometimes think that using standards-based development principles, separating presentation and behavior via external CSS and DOM-based scripting techniques, and applying
alt attributes to images creates Section 508 compliance. They don’t want to spend more effort on accessibility until they get feedback from users who have problems with the site. The logic seems justified: good business practices prioritize requirements based on project constraints and ROI expectations. But while good coding practices help achieve accessibility, they must be applied with the right intentions to be effective.
alt attribute, for example. Any decent HTML editor or validation tool will point out missing
alt text, and most developers will provide a value for it, either to get the code to validate or to achieve accessibility. Valid code, however, does not equal accessible content. The W3C HTML5 Specification (Working Draft) explicitly recognizes this and provides detailed examples for
alt text depending on the function and context of the image. You might argue that most web developers understand this distinction, but many websites show that this is not the case.
Accessibility: last on the list#section5
Just recently, a post on a popular web development forum caught my attention. It was titled “using ‘alt’ versus ‘title’ in an tag. ‘alt’ not work for Firefox 3.” Some replies, such as the following one, surprised me, and not because of the wacky grammar:
In my response on the forum, I pointed out the class action lawsuit between the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Target. To settle, Target paid a lot of money and agreed to intensive and expensive accessibility training for their web developers.
If a Fortune 500 company can’t get accessibility right, we can only imagine how difficult it may seem for smaller companies to achieve accessibility. Accessibility is often assigned a low priority for the following reasons:
- We would like to create accessible content, but we only have a small team.
- Nobody ever really complains about inaccessibility, anyway.
- Accessible sites are less aesthetically pleasing and they limit our design options.
- We really don’t know what it takes to make our website/web application accessible.
- Our target user group doesn’t include users with disabilities.
Of all the arguments, number four is really the only valid reason why a website or web application should have accessibility issues. You can resolve this issue—provide your web designers and developers with some minimal and gradual accessibility training, and keep the discussion alive. As for the rest…they merely require a small, but powerful shift in mindset
De-marginalizing accessibility with the inclusion principle#section6
Let’s explore the inclusion principle, which allows us to forget about the dichotomy between “them” and “us” so deeply ingrained in our social interactions. A focus on inclusion frees the accessible/universal design discussion from the conflicting interests described above and lets us embrace a broader, more organic philosophy. Above all, focusing on inclusion helps us understand that we do not only consider accessibility for others, but for our own good.
Consider this definition from the Institute for Inclusion:
The Institute also discusses inclusion as:
Once we embrace inclusiveness, it becomes difficult to marginalize others as members of one specific group, such as “users with disabilities.” If we discard “us” and “them” thinking, we stop looking for reasons to avoid accessibility, and we begin to see others’ needs as our own. With inclusion, we don’t dismiss web accessibility requirements, we see them as a chance to create empowerment by embracing our similarities and differences.
This might seem like an unneccessary, theoretical dissection of accessibility, and you might say that a focus on inclusiveness doesn’t immediately solve your daily web design problems. But remember: We can embrace similarities by focusing on universal design and embrace differences by applying accessible design. Some “universal” techniques and elements include:
altattributes for images as specified and clearly
explained in the the W3C’s Techniques for WCAG 2.0.
- Structuring page content with heading levels (
- Using simple data tables, complex data tables, and
thelements as demonstrated in the Techniques for WCAG 2.0.
- Applying label and input associations in web forms as described in WebAIM: Creating Accessible Forms.
When we apply these techniques universally, they become “second nature” and a part of the mental model we use to build websites. Eventually, we don’t think of them as accessibility techniques, we see them as innate, universal web techniques. We experience a paradigm shift to inclusive design.
This can take a burden off both the client’s and the developer’s shoulders, because the remaining accessibility tasks are now better isolated. This facilitates an honest discussion about what it takes to achieve full accessibility, and developers can provide a more objective estimate for additional accessibility efforts.
While accessible and universal design are predominantly outcome-oriented, the new inclusive design model is distinctively process-oriented. It is crucial that the designer can identify with the accessibility requirements of a project. Where this is not the case, there is no enthusiasm, and without enthusiasm we are back at our old ways—marginalizing accessibility tasks.
Let’s get productive #section8
To see the inclusion principle in practice, let’s apply it to that list of objections to accessibility:
1. We would like to create accessible content, but we only have a small team. It doesn’t take much to get on the road to accessibility. WebAIM.org provides a really nice quick reference guide to help you get started. If you already know the basics, share accessibility knowledge among the team. For example, when you hear other developers discussing Ajax, send them information about accessible Ajax. If you use non-HTML formats such as Word or PDF, share checklists and how they can make a difference. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a good resource.)
2. Nobody ever really complains about inaccessibility, anyway. People do complain—just not to your face. When was the last time you were annoyed with a poorly designed product, but didn’t write a letter to the manufacturer? If your website has accessibility issues, the complaint is implicit in the design. Take this as an opportunity to be an advocate for change.
3. Accessible sites are less aesthetically pleasing and they limit our design options. I beg to differ: Nick Day, winner of the UK-based Accessibility in Focus award, got it right with his website English in Chester. Look around and learn from others. That’s what the web was designed for.
4. We really don’t know what it takes to make our website/web application accessible. Accessibility can seem overwhelming for a complex website or rich internet application (RIA). When you have a complex, multimedia-rich application, get creative. Find a school nearby for students who are blind or deaf, and ask for a volunteer to show you how they interact with computers. Investigate alternative ways of getting video captioned, such as dotSUB.
5. Our target user group doesn’t include users with disabilities. If that’s the case, then concentrate on your target group. Are you in the target group? Think about it: you are always a stakeholder in your projects. So, take your needs seriously and add value for yourself. How would you approach that?
Listen to yourself#section9
How can you get started with the inclusion principle? Imagine starting your adventure with a black screen as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Imagine your website. Now, take it a step further and imagine listening to your website rather than looking at it. This will help you to stop treating your website like a book. We sometimes forget that the web is a colloquial medium, and its narrative is not inseparable from its form.
What does your website sound like? Turn off your style sheet and look at what you’ve got. Suddenly the person listening to a website with a screen reader is no longer different from you—your needs are the same. Achieving the highest level of accessibility makes a lot of sense and should be part of your design efforts for reasons you no longer need others to justify for you. Embrace the inclusion principle and you’ll be the one who makes the case for accessibility.
32 Reader Comments
Do you think there should be a really easy and directly accessible way to get any visitors the chance to give feedback about your website? I think this is, for any accessibility related websites, a must-have and should be added to your #2.
Second point from my side: Is there any chance to create a all-time accessible website that is editable by your customer via a CMS? Neither a strict policy nor strict stylesheets can stop them from breaking all standards, i think.
Nice article overall, i think it’s really helpful.
During my Industrial Design education, the topics of accessibility, affordances, and universal design were commonly brought up.
It becomes such a hugely philosophical notion, understanding what “Universal” means. There will always need to be a boundary, and I think you highlighted that in your answer to issue #5 (Our target user group doesn’t include users with disabilities).
I am definitely of the belief that designing for everyone and everything in the whole wide *infinite* universe is not completely possible for a human to do…
However, I do think it is possible (because we are finite creatures), once we understand what our “universe” is first.
Thanks for the great article!
This is an excellent article, lots of good points here to take in. Accessible forms are always something I need help with, the link was really helpful.
The webaim quick reference guide was a great read as well and is now firmly saved in my favourites.
I found the paragraph about target group extremely interesting. I guess some people always like to try and make sure that everything works for everybody but why take the time if you know a particular group wouldn’t never use the website. Or is it just common courtesy to ensure that your website reaches the most people and and is a usable experience for everyone that might come across it?
really good stuff, thanks!
“Nick Day, winner of the UK-based Accessibility in Focus award, got it right with his website English in Chester.”
Great article, and I agree completely that accessible design doesn’t have to be ugly. Sadly the example you’ve chosen doesn’t really help the argument. I can see a lot of graphic/ web designers looking at English in Chester and holding it up as yet another example of an aesthetically dull, accessible website. After all, it’s the designers you need to get on board.
Regarding objection #5, I find it hard to believe that this could apply to people with disabilities. With a word-wide population of around 700 Million people with disabilities, not to mention the ageing factor which generally impacts on abilities in some way or another, etc., etc., odds are that your site will be visited and used (or at least try to be used) by people with various disabilities. Arguing that “our target user group doesn’t include users with disabilities” is simply delusional.
I think the point you made that will really strike home with people is the idea that once you start to think of people as “Us” vs. “Them”, it is easy to cast off their concerns, because you are focusing on your differences more than your similarities.
For those that need a website to be accessible, they are actually 99% like you are. Should that 1% difference make their concerns less valid?
I acknowledge that my site http://christophermeeks.com is probably not accessible at all. I fault myself for a lack of knowledge on the subject, but will gladly put more effort into it in the future.
Fantastic article about inclusion.
“People do complain—just not to your face.”
On the web it’s far more likely that people won’t complain, they’ll just go somewhere else, most likely your competition’s site.
Stefan – I agree, a comment page for accessibility feedback is a good idea. Especially if the posts are regularly updated to show how the concerns have been addressed.
Concerning CMS – in the end it is always up to the person posting the content to ensure accessibility. I can see how a publishing workflow which routes each update to a reviewer could be helpful to resolve this issue.
Catherine – I fully agree with you, but you would be surprised how often that argument (“users with disabilities are not in our target group”) is made by clients, managers, and developers. I have worked on many (federal government sponsored) projects where project managers said “no need to look into Section 508 compliance at this point.”
Duncan – I fully understand what you mean. But while Nick Day’s site is not a design marvel to the most talented designers out there, I find it nevertheless aesthetically pleasing. I chose it because it’s easy to spot all the accessibility features, since it is just a small website. I hope that some people start looking into some of the techniques Nick applied in order to make the site accessible.
This article goes together well with http://asktog.com/columns/077InclusiveDesignPart1.html
I sort of agree with Catherine as well. People with disabilities have all sorts of interests, beliefs, and skill sets. I doubt that there are many sites that do not need to strive for universal design.
Just as an amusing, somewhat related anecdote: There’s one particular exit at Mississippi State’s student union that always gets me (being a wheelchair user myself). It is an automatic door, but the button that activates the door isn’t viewable unless you go around this little corner. I can just imagine someone using a walker trying to push the button and then get back around the corner and through the door before it closes. It reminds me of “accessible” bathroom stalls that have transfer rails but no space for a wheelchair.
I guess what I am trying to say is that when someone puts thought in to making something accessible, it is very much appreciated.
i think it was only very recently that i read an article from alistapart on accessibility. i must say that this article was much better. in the other article, it seemed that the author was practically demanding accessibility or else! this one seems to be much more positive and encouraging for developers to work harder to adhere to universal design.
with that said, i do have a concern with how accessibility is approached by some of its supporters. on any website, there may be a very long list of priorities. 1) create interesting content 2) create credibility and trust 3) compel visitors to take an action you want them to 4) have all browsers render the website in a similar way 5) generate search engine traffic 6) stay within budget….the list goes on.
I would consider accessibility just as important as any of the priorities listed above, but I would not consider it more important. We can give our clients our best recommendation, but if they insist on a website consisting of a single 100-page long jpg…then that is what they will get. even as useless as such a site would be, it is still more useful than nothing at all.
I would rather see an article with useful tips on how to improve accessibility, preferably along with other benefits. For example, using h1,h2,h3 tags not only improves accessibility, it also improves search engine rankings. the more reasons we have to support our position, and the easier we make it to achieve, the more it will happen.
If you take the idea of inclusiveness out of web design and into the real world, you run into the same old problems. Should a BMX organisation need to provide the opportunity for an 90 year old, or a quadriplegic, or someone who simply isn’t very good at riding BMX, to ride in a BMX race?
As this article states, things like alt attributes, semantic heading tags and associating labels with form elements are all easy enough to implement, and should be included without hesitation by all web designers.
However we need to accept that inclusiveness is not possible, nor desirable, in every single situation. This may be because of a disability, a slow internet connection, or simply a lack of understanding of the content itself (I can read a complex physics report online all I want, it will still mean absolutely nothing to me).
Things such as video captions are a great tool in some circumstances, but who says a website needs to be analogous to a “document”, the entirety of which must be accessible to every user?
I reserve the right to create a piece of content on the web, just as I do for anything I create outside the web, as art. I may produce a video containing some audio that I feel is an intrinsic part of the production.
We don’t ask musicians to provide descriptive transcriptions of all their songs for the deaf. We don’t ask artists to provide a written description of their painting that will give a blind person the same experience as a sighted person.
If a web content creator decides that a particular video is not a “document”, but rather (for want of a better term) a work of art consisting of complementary aural and visual components, do we have the right to insist that users who cannot physically experience one of those components be provided with an alternative?
Do we insist that bike manufacturers find a way for a quadriplegic to pedal a BMX?
I appreciate this article. Especially the list of things that us designers can do to ensure a baseline of accessibility. Because there are so many factors out of our control on the web I believe it’s important to ensure we have a handle on the factors we can absolutely control. Such and how we write our html.
I was once told that a good accessibility test was to try and use the tab key to go through a website. Is that a sufficient test?
??Do we insist that bike manufacturers find a way for a quadriplegic to pedal a BMX???
When universal design is not possible, we can look for accessible alternatives that provide a similar experience. There are modified sidecar motorcycles that can provide a fun biking experience of a different kind. Of course, the BMX manufacturer isn’t responsible for providing that alternative.
You are right, bsmithett, an artist can be fully focused on the creation process without having to think about its reception at all. But what about the art department of a university whose website shows photos of that same artwork? Is there any reason that the university couldn’t provide a description of a photo or add captions to a video project?
David – tabbing through a website is a good starting point to see if somebody who doesn’t use a mouse can accomplish everything on the site. It also helps preparing the site for screen reader access, which is also keyboard based. There are many more things you can do to ensure accessibility. I always point to webaim.org as a starting point since it’s just such a great resource. Check out the videos they posted on webaim.org/intro.
I think this is a well thought through and in-depth analysis, Margit, but I am somewhat fixated on your use of the term “affordance”: to the point of it being a minor distraction for me. Mind you I am a bit of a pendant, and certainly no UX engineer or expert — and I’ll concede that perhaps it is really not important to your point anyway — still I have always understood affordance to be about the physical relationships between an object and something acting upon that object.
Some time ago, Don Norman made a comment lamenting how when he introduced the term in his book he was not clearer about it, and thus “propagated a misnomer”:http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html . To clarify the very real distinction between what we actually _can_ do with an object, and what we _think that we can_ do with an object, he proposed the term “perceived affordance,” a phrase you used in conjunction with another concept. I know these terms are often used interchangeably and even loosely for different concepts, but the confusion over these Latin derivatives render them little more than jargon in the web design world — and, speaking for myself, I do not find that the concepts that they describe map particularly well to what web designers do anyway.
Web designers have no ability to control affordances of networked computers, and generally have quite a limited ability to control the perceived affordances web users have about their machines. Simply put, web designers don’t change web users. Now, some very novel and ingenious methods of interaction — I’m thinking of something like “GE’s augmented reality”:http://ge.ecomagination.com/smartgrid/#/augmented_reality smartgrid campaign — certainly exist online, and arguably they do affect the way that we might think to interact with our computers, but for the most part the visual design of a web site is a matter of semiotics. We ought to barrow terms from conversation rather than the world of refrigerators and teapots to describe what web designers do. Rather than “creating affordance,” web designers _suggest_ or _propose_ or _indicate_ interpretations and actions.
I am belaboring a very small point here I know; so why is this pedantry even worth discussing? I think this is an important distinction, because it is the difference between deifying web designers with powers so great as to manipulate the minds of Internet users and the physical world itself with nothing more than the coloration of a pixel, versus viewing web designers as facilitators of a conversation. It’s a simple shift in thought that puts emphasis on the role of communication and the necessity for web designers to be mindful of why something is worth putting online. Once we no longer have to appeal to the magnanimity of just and gracious gods to permit people who use computers in a different way to be amongst their audience, the issue becomes one of the articulateness of a communications professional.
In viewing a web designer’s role as one that is meant to reach people, rather than as one that is meant to create things from an abyss, the demand for clear and effective communicators makes the objective of accessibility ever more salient.
I agree with Duncan that by choosing a not terribly exciting site as an example that accessible sites don’t have to be boring, that you’re actually strengthening the opposing argument. A better choice may have been the one that won the ‘Best Design Award’ from Accessibility in Focus or one from “Accessite’s showcase”:http://accessites.org/site/category/showcase/ .
Ian – thanks for your insightful comments about affordance. I think the term has become very flexible in the last years and can serve us well in a variety of contexts, including web design. Cooper is still using this term for user interface design in the 3rd edition of “About Face” (2007), and he has truly shaped a lot of concepts we apply in interaction design.
It seems to me that Norman has considerably changed his position regarding the widespread use of the term “affordance”. While in the 90’s he regretted having created a “misnomer,” post-2000 he started to like the idea of a broader definition of affordance.
Interestingly, a newfound appreciation of semiotic discourse seems to have triggered this change of mind. In his essay “Design as Communication”:http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/design_as_comun.html , Norman shares his new view with much excitement:
[…] ??I decided that although the screen designer was not using the term appropriately in its pure sense, there was no other term to describe what the designer had done, so why not appropriate affordance for this purpose. Affordance is indeed close, and this is how language grows over time, adding new concepts, letting words expand or contract in meanings to fit the circumstances??.
[…] ??Once we start to view design as a form of communication between designer and the user, we see that perceived affordances become an important medium for that communication??.
[…] ??A similar communication happens in the virtual world of screen design??.
[…] ??By making certain regions of the screen take on perceptible, distinctive appearances, the designer is communication (sic!) the design intention??.
[…] ??Under this new view of design, designed affordances are communication devices, specifying the designer’s intentions to the audience??.
I like this semiotic approach to the concept of affordance, I think Roland Barthes would approve of it.
John – I had a feeling I would get a lot of criticism for choosing “English in Chester”:http://www.english-in-chester.co.uk/ as a poster child for accessible design that also looks good. While the other sites you are pointing to do a good job in showcasing universal design, I haven’t found any other site that does such a magnificent job implementing so many accessible design features that can be discovered right from the homepage. Have you checked out the audio option that highlights the text on the page while reading it out loud? The site also shows how to nicely present videos in different formats and with captions. The “high contrast version” is an important accessibility feature as well.
I know, you will still throw it back at me as a boring looking site. I looked at Nick’s more recent sites, e.g. “English UK North”:http://www.englishuknorth.com/ . You can clearly see he knows how to design “in 2.0,” but those sites don’t have any of the “cool” accessibility features. Not every client will focus on accessibility the same way.
I might try to find out from him how he approaches accessibility features, since their implementation is based on a lot of factors, such as client’s willingness to add to the budget, etc.
I agree with much of the article – having come from a traditional design background before desktop publishing and widespread home computing – learning to develop website over time has meant understanding that a technique I used some years ago may be wrong – and where I can – put it right – back in the latter part of the 1990’s and early 2000 – a classic example would be the realisation that creating a website layout using tables was wrong.
If you want to move on – you have to keep learning and improving your skills. No one is born into this business – and not many have the opportunity or support from their own employers to learn about accessibility and inclusion.
But once you know what can be done to make your website more accessible/inclusive – you should try and demonstrate it the best you can.
Not every accessible/inclusive website needs to be ugly – many of the main accessibility features can be invisible to the non-disabled user such as:
– Tabbed browsing WITH a:focus attribute : i.e. as you tab through links there is the same visual change that you would get if you used a mouseover
– Skip links – to jump to key blocks within the web page – so that someone without the ability to use a mouse doesn’t have to tab through the whole navigation before getting to a link in the main content. These can be positioned off screen and positioned on screen when brought into focus.
Just a couple of examples there.
On the issue of an ‘artistic’ website – I think that the publisher should at the very least offer some explanation as to why some content may not be labelled appropriately by the way of a disclaimer – or a link to a page – Help with using this website.
I disagree about the example of the university showing photos of artwork – the artwork is likely to be very subjective – one persons interpretation of the artwork may not be the same as another persons.
For many years people have afforded a lot of time to design with Web Standards and quoted the CSS Zen Garden as a great example of how CSS and web standards can be great.
Maybe we need an Accessibility Garden of links to websites that showcase how accessible website design does not have to be dull. Setting the criteria might be a bit of a challenge – but I’d like to think we could have one all the same.
Thank you for a wonderful article!
The high contrast version on that demo site is horrible. I should sue him for the headache he gave me after just 1 minute of trying to read cyan on black.
thanx for your interessting article and excuse my little school english, i am german and no native writer…so, what i am missing beside alt tags, h1/h2: for me most importent concerning accessibility in praxis is the possibility to increase the font size. I would estimate that minimum 40% of visitors on a company website are people 40+. At this age, your are probably very happy if you are able to zoom the website with one klick!
bq. But what about the art department of a university whose website shows photos of that same artwork? Is there any reason that the university couldn’t provide a description of a photo or add captions to a video project?
There is absolutely no reason why that shouldn’t happen, I agree with you completely.
However we need to acknowledge that, no matter what our users’ abilities, we cannot automatically treat every single piece of content on the web (video, image, page, application, etc) as a document, which is not open for interpretation, and with which the *experience* of viewing/engaging/interacting can be fully reproduced by a text-only equivalent.
Yes, an *alt* tag serves its purpose extremely well in many (most) cases when used correctly. However what would I write as the *alt* text for the _Mona Lisa_? How would I caption _Fantasia_? We must acknowledge that there is some content out there that inherently requires a certain sense or ability to interpret and experience.
I’m playing the devil’s advocate a little here, but I believe attempts at universal, across-the-board inclusion actually hamper our efforts to promote accessible web design where it does matter.
Who decided that every single piece of content on the web needs to be accessible to every single user? Are we really at the point where I need to fear litigation if I choose to use the web as a medium for sharing an uncaptioned video?
bq. I found the paragraph about target group extremely interesting. I guess some people always like to try and make sure that everything works for everybody but why take the time if you know a particular group wouldn’t never use the website.
How do you know that no-one with a disability would want to use a particular website? “Disability” covers a huge range of conditions, including hearing or vision reduction/loss, poor motor control (eg can’t use a mouse), colour-blindness, epilepsy, dyslexia and many, many more. It doesn’t just mean someone who uses a wheelchair! If you can find a website where the target audience is guaranteed not to include anyone with any kind of disability, I will be absolutely staggered.
bq. I was once told that a good accessibility test was to try and use the tab key to go through a website. Is that a sufficient test?
A good test is to disable images, styling and scripting, and put your mouse out of reach. If you can still successfully use the website (imagining you have no prior knowledge of the site), there’s a very good chance it is highly accessible.
bq. “Yes, an alt tag serves its purpose extremely well in many (most) cases when used correctly. However what would I write as the alt text for the Mona Lisa? How would I caption Fantasia? We must acknowledge that there is some content out there that inherently requires a certain sense or ability to interpret and experience.”
These are good honest questions and good points that are voiced by many people, and the answers are widely available. To find the answers, though, we really must care enough to seek them out. I like Margit’s article a lot, because she’s explaining why we might want to do so.
In short, the alt tag is not so much a description as a quick indication of an element’s context in the information stream we are delivering. What *is* this thing that’s otherwise invisible to my screen reader/phone/handheld device? The Mona Lisa alt tag could be “Mona Lisa, by Leonardo daVinci” … and that’s enough. Chances are, the reason for its inclusion is explained in the surrounding text. Many people with vision loss have heard of the painting, understand it in context, and may have seen it if they once had vision.
If you were diligent about accessibility, you might add a “longdesc” tag pointing to Wikipedia or some other explanation about the Mona Lisa’s artistic significance (expanding the context from the specific to the general, providing users this option for better understanding).
That’s all. It’s as complicated or as simple as we want to make it. And if you’re making any sincere effort at all to address accessibility, nobody is going to sue you successfully.
Disney’s “Fantasia” … I don’t recall, are there any words at all? If the meaning is conveyed by pictures and music alone, no captioning is needed. Good luck securing the rights to post any part of that particular film online, though!
There’s no substitute for common sense in the practice of inclusive web design. You can overdo it and overthink it until it makes you sick. But if we just do it, using solid structure and progressive enhancement, it really isn’t a big deal and in some ways it helps everyone. I’ve found it forces me to order my thinking in a way that helps me when changes need to be made later. And anything that brings order to my thinking is welcome!
@Jeff Seager – Thanks for the thorough response Jeff!
bq. Disney’s “Fantasia” “¦ I don’t recall, are there any words at all? If the meaning is conveyed by pictures and music alone, no captioning is needed. Good luck securing the rights to post any part of that particular film online, though!
The point I was trying to make here, which you actually clarified for me, is that there may be web content where the meaning is conveyed by pictures and/or audio alone, or by an animation that occurs by physically waving a mouse pointer over an element.
Either of these instances would obviously raise accessibility issues for many users, and would be an awful way of conveying the meaning of the majority of the content most of us put online.
However I think we have a tendency to confuse the Web (*the medium*) with the Web (*the content*).
The web is a medium just like TV or radio or print. Techniques exist which allow us to make the content conveyed over the web more accessible to all users, just as techniques exist for TV (eg captions) or print (eg braille), and in most cases we want to do this!
BUT there will also be times when we want to use the features of the medium itself to create meaning. On TV, we can use the medium’s audio and video capabilities to display music videos. There is no underlying content to be transmitted any other way, there is just something that works as a music video and loses it’s meaning if you remove either the audio or video.
On the web, this means we can display videos, or sounds, or images, or make something animate crazily when we wave our mouse over it. Not because we have a reducible-to-text message to convey, but purely for the sake of doing so!
What makes me nervous are the legal precedents being set in an environment where the prevailing idea seems to be that, if we tried hard enough, we could make every bit of content on the web completely accessible and meaningful to every user.
bq. What makes me nervous are the legal precedents being set in an environment where the prevailing idea seems to be that, if we tried hard enough, we could make every bit of content on the web completely accessible and meaningful to every user. *We can’t.*
That’s right. In fact, all your points are right on the mark, except I’m concerned that some people might interpret this as a reason to throw up our hands and dismiss accessibility.
Also, many things are legislated before they are well understood. Legislators are like that!
I think the most important thing to understand about accessibility is that all things, physical or virtual, are accessible in varying degrees. Not either/or, accessible/inaccessible, but HOW accessible is it, and to whom? That’s why there’s no definitive validator — though there are a few that can point out the most obvious stumbling blocks.
Philosophically and psychologically, separation of structure and style also represents the separation of thought, reason and facts from feelings. Rich media are in the realm of feeling. If they also convey facts, and those are important facts, they should be delivered at a lower level first.
As we “progress” into ever “richer” online media, I’m concerned that many of us are becoming geeks who design only for other geeks. Progressive enhancement and accessible design criteria will allow us to deliver essential information to those who are more conservative by choice or by necessity. I’m idealistic enough to think that’s important.
bq. except I’m concerned that some people might interpret this as a reason to throw up our hands and dismiss accessibility.
It’s a bit of a tightrope walk. You’re absolutely right, if we lean too far one way we do risk undoing all that hard work by providing excuses to dismiss the obligation to address accessibility issues and include all users on the web.
But if we lean too far the other way, we risk creating an environment where content will simply not make it to the web due to the legal risk involved.
This reminds me a lot of what the fear of litigation and the need for public liability insurance has done to public spaces, community events, etc worldwide. Community festivals and events from 10 years ago simply don’t happen any more because they can’t afford the liability insurance. We have ridiculous warning signs in every public space (eg “beaches”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=archive&ct=res&cd=0-2&url=http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200205/s554587.htm&ei=OqNzSvPlF5_sqwPgzMHADA&usg=AFQjCNH3U5XVkvRWE04Up2x60Y0ns5G-FA ) for the sole reason of protecting local government from being sued.
I am definitely for using all the tools we have (including but not limited to progressive enhancement) to make the web a more accessible place for all users, and practicing the Inclusion Principle where possible. But I also love checking out content that is sometimes, by it’s very nature, inaccessible to someone with a vision or hearing impairment on “Vimeo”:http://www.vimeo.com and “Ffffound”:http://www.ffffound.com , and would hate to see our ability to publish content like this disappear for fear of litigation.
So in short @Jeff Seager, I am equally idealistic enough to believe we can
bq. deliver essential information to those who are more conservative by choice or by necessity
…I just don’t have faith that the legal system is able to consistently draw the line between essential and non-essential, seeing as I have no idea myself where I would draw it!
I work for a government agency, and there are laws that specifically require us to be duly diligent with accessibility. I also have very little faith in the legal system of this overly litigious society, _*bsmithett*_, but I think my “due diligence” is a pretty darned good defense if anyone drags me into court.
If we want to develop for a major commercial market, or a state or federal government agency, I think we can expect to be held to a higher standard if we REALLY screw up (as Target did, disregarding numerous known accessibility techniques that would have been simple to implement). But for the vast majority of web developers and designers working small niche markets, legal standards for accessibility will never be an issue.
I didn’t approve of the “lawsuit against Target”:http://webaim.org/blog/target-lawsuit-settled/ or the terms of that 2008 settlement, as it set up the National Foundation for the Blind (the *plaintiffs*, for cryin’ out loud) as the sole judges of Target’s accessibility compliance. There again, I haven’t much faith in the fairness of legal mandates. But a lawsuit was bound to call our attention to the need for accessibility, because so many people disregard it altogether.
Somebody definitely needs to push back the boundaries of what’s possible in content delivery, and somebody always will. Yes, some things are inaccessible by nature and somewhat by design. If we understand what is accessible and what’s not, at least, we may make better decisions about when and how to use the accessibility tools we have. Having a vast vocabulary shouldn’t require us to prove it in every social encounter, and it’s the same with the language of multimedia.
Didn’t mean to threadjack, but it’s obvious that Margit’s article has struck a chord in us. I think that’s a good thing, _*bsmithett*_, and I appreciate your thoughts on this.
I’ve been pro accessibility ever since I started working in the web industry. All of the companies that I have worked with to establish accessibility policies (in my opinion some have done a better job than others) have had to draw a line somewhere. As Jeff has discussed, there are varying degrees of accessibility, it’s not black and white.
I think as long as we strive for communities and companies working towards accessibility that can only be a good thing. There isn’t a definitive guide out there but many great resources out there including the “W3C checklist”:url:http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/full-checklist.html , “Vision Australia’s resource guide”:url:http://www.visionaustralia.org.au/info.aspx?page=740 and tools such as the “JW open souce accessible video player”:url:http://www.longtailvideo.com/support/tutorials/Making-Video-Accessible .
In my experience if accessibility is discussed and planned for up front it can be fairly easy to implement in any web development project (including Flash development).
It’s important to say that accessibility is not only for disabled people. It’s for everyone. Try websites not using your mouse. Imagine it’s broken or out of battery. A lot of sites break completely just because you don’t use the mouse. another example is flash. Not everybody has it. Some places, like companies disable flash. That can break a site completely. These are just two examples. And now tell me that those people don’t matter, they are not in the target group or whatever excuse.
Thanks to Margit for featuring the site I created for English in Chester in this article. It’s very interesting to hear other people’s opinions on the site, and I just wanted to make a few comments about the visual design.
The site was developed about 3 or 4 years ago, and at the time the design was considered much more “cutting edge” than it is now. I admit that in 2009 it does look quite outdated, and I will soon be redesigning the site to be consistent with English in Chester’s new brand image. I’m aiming to achieve similar levels of accessibility on the new site.
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