London Web Meetup: Accessibility in the Days of jQuery, Flash and AJAX

Review: London Web February: Accessibility in the Days of jQuery, Flash and AJAX at Wahoo Sports Bar, 14 Putney High St, Putney, London, SW15 1SL 19:30 to 21:30

This week, accessibility has been a bit of a theme for me, after LWS Inclusivity on Monday I was at the London Web Meetup on Accessibility on Thursday night.

To start with, Nathan gave a short presentation on HTML5 and CSS3. It was an introductory talk, so nothing new to me, but there was a very interesting open discussion afterwards. The focus was whether we'd even be able to use this fancy new HTML5 and CSS3 stuff while IE6 continued to account for 20% (or more) of the users of any given website. The Yahoo! home page still sees a huge number of IE6 visitors, and people who worked a lot with city clients said IE6 was still the default browser for many of their customers, the recent security scares do seem to have created an impetus for change among some of the banks. There was also some discussion about whether we even need to provide a pixel for pixel identical experience in every browser, or whether we needed to have the visual bells an whistles at all - apparently a front end engineer at Yahoo! Sports turned off all the rounded corners and showed the result to a designer and the designer couldn't spot the difference. My contribution to the discussion was that as more and more people use a mobile device to browse the web, and a lot of the browsers on those do support HTML5 and CSS3, you may be able to start using these much sooner if you're targeting these users.

After a short break we moved on to Artur Ortega's demonstration of screen readers and WAI-ARIA. Artur had JAWS, the leading commercial screen reading software, and NVDA, the free and open source alternative. He also mentioned Orca, the Gnome Linux based screen reader, and VoiceOver, which comes free with Mac OSX, including the iPhone version, which Artur used (this reminded me of Sandi's comment at the end of Monday's talk - including the tools in the operating system brings wider benefits).

Artur started off with a discussion of how the needs of screen reader users differed from fully sighted users. Although web pages are two dimensional, a screen reader sees them as a one dimensional audio track. This means a screen reader user needs 'timestops' if they are to navigate the page efficiently. These can be provided, in a well structured page, by headings - a screen reader can navigate from heading to heading with a keystroke without reading all the text in between. So the first simple improvement you can do to make your pages more accessible is make sure your page uses headings in appropriate places. Another small change which can make a big difference is to indicate language correctly with the lang attribute. This is very important in pages where multiple languages are likely to appear, such as search engine results. Currently, Yahoo! is the only search engine to do this - Artur demonstrated the huge difference it made to the screen reading experience, a set of multi-lingual search results became almost unintelligible when the screen reader was in the wrong language mode. Since search engines already work out the language of a particular page and expose that information, as evidenced by them providing 'translate this page' links in the results, this ought to be a simple change to make.

Next, Artur moved on to WAI-ARIA. ARIA is Accessibility for Rich Internet Applications, web apps with heavy use of Javascript and AJAX. For a general introduction see the W3C WAI-ARIA Overview, or More Accessible User Interfaces with ARIA which I attended in December. Support for ARIA is available in IE8 (there was some, but not much, support in IE7) and Firefox 3.0 (and up), when used with JAWS 10 or later (or recent releases of NVDA). Artur showed us ARIA landmarks and the aria-required attribute as well as, briefly, ARIA live regions.

There were a lot of questions all through the talk, so we had to cut it short at the end. I think many people, like myself, were totally in awe of Artur and his ability to navigate the web with a screen reader - especially when he demonstrated doing it at 'normal' speed near the end (he'd had it set to slow mode to give us a chance to keep up during the demos). I was inspired to spend a few hours the following morning implementing aria-required on a form in my web app at work :)

Another great event, 4 out of 5. I'm not sure a bar is the most comfortable environment for listening to a presentation, it seems that few in the London web community agree with me there, though. On the plus side, unlike most the events I attend this one was within ten minutes walk of where I work, so no need to be fighting my way through London rush hour to get there. The talks themselves, and the discussion afterwards, were excellent.

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