WSG London Accessibility Meetup

With my increasing interest in accessibility issues I signed up for the WSG London Accessibility Meetup as soon as I heard about it. I can't remember anything else I've tried to learn where I've had my preconceptions (misconceptions really) shattered on such a regular basis. There were a couple of those moments in the evening's talks for me.

Three talks, so I'm having another crack at the hReview thing, this time three reviews in one post so I'm trying the include pattern (though I think I've got it a bit wrong, and I had to do a bit of hacking in b2evo to get the internal anchors to work...).

Accessible Flash from Niqui Merret, 19:00 to 19:30

Niqui started off with some justification. many web developers believe that Flash can never be accessible, and this is not true. Flash has a lot of built in support for accessibility such as access keys, labels and captions, and in addition can be used to detect the presence of a screen reader (if you're using IE on Windows...). It is also a misconception that a block of HTML content is necessarily more accessible than a Flash movie - the phrase 'a picture is worth a thousand words' can be applied here, some disabled users will have far more trouble reading a large block of text than they would assimilating an animation.

No technology is 100% accessible, but the process of making Flash as accessible as possible is the same as with any other technology - identify the barriers stopping people accessing your content and work out how to get around them. Flash has a number of built in mechanisms to help the developer overcome barriers - as previously mentioned it can communicate with screen readers and notify it of content updates, it can be keyboard driven and labels can be added which will be read out. Niqui then showed us a demo of a simple accessible Flash game she'd built, using it with a screen reader and keyboard, and showed us some other useful tricks which were possible - dynamically adjusting/inverting colours and contrast in the movie, and a simple script which allowed the movie to scale as the browser font size was changed. She also had some interesting points about the relationship between Flash and standards - there aren't going to be any standards for accessible Flash content until the 'standards people' accept Flash.

Niqui was enthusiastic about her subject matter and had excellent presentation skills, the talk was a definite eye opener in some respects, but Flash was unfortunately the thing I was least interested in so 4 out of 5.

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Accessibility, what not to do by Anne McMeekin, 19:30 to 20:00

Anne's talk covered some common pitfalls in building an accessible website, I noted down some highlights:

  • Don't assume - not all disabilities are the same, some groups don't even class themselves as disabled even though they have accessibility requirements, so you can't predict how accessible your site will be to all of them. Also don't assume that disabled people won't be interested in what you have to offer.
  • Don't ignore - if people complain about the accessibility of your site then that needs to be treated as an opportunity to improve, feedback is valuable.
  • Don't forget the background - not everyone browses with a default background colour of white, if your site design depends on having black text on a white background it can look pretty horrible (and be hard to read) if a user is browsing on Windows using the high contrast theme if you don't explicitly set those colours in your stylesheet.
  • Don't waffle - cut out unnecessary text like 'click here for', don't duplicate content across alt and title attributes and the link text as it could end up getting read out three times (and don't put crucial content only in the title attribute, as it may end up not getting read at all). Also remember that the popup boxes for alt and title attributes can often obscure important content for screen magnifier users, who need to keep the mouse pointer near to what they're reading. Don't make your pages unnecessarily long as vast swathes of text will fill up the screen reader's buffer and slow everything down.
  • Don't be shy - biggest users of skip links are people with motor disabilities, not blind users, so hiding skip links and keeping them only for blind users is counter productive. Don't forget the :focus and :active pseudo classes as these are the ones which will be activated by keyboard only users.
  • Don't leave it to chance - put unique information first on the page, don't take the chance that disabled users will leave before getting to the interesting content. Put instructions before the form to which they apply. If you have help info for items on your form then put the links to that help inside the labels otherwise they may be ignored by screen readers in 'forms' mode. Put the labels in the expected places (before inputs and selects, after checkboxes and options) so that users using screen magnifiers will see them. Also remember that, when using legends with fieldsets, many screen readers will read out the legend before the label for each form field - so keep the legend short and sweet (Anne mentioned one example she'd seen which had a 38 word legend!).

The subject matter of this talk was far better aligned with my interests, but Anne was a bit soft spoken which made it difficult to hear at points, and there weren't too many practical examples, so 4 out of 5.

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Web Accessibility by Mike Davies, 20:00 to 20:30

Mike's talk focussed on the business case for accessibility, and mostly related to his work in transforming the Legal and General website. His opening slide was quite impressive, he asked "What if a web agency walked into your office and promised the following things for your website re-design?":

  • 40% increase in traffic
  • Double the number of successful conversions
  • Double the revenue generated by the site
  • Get a return on investment for the re-design in five months

Although none of these were the explicit goals of the re-design, but they happened as a result of accessibility improvements.

Mike discussed some of the things which were required to get the whole project pushed through:

  • Clear responsibility and vision - the goal of accessibility was driven from the top
  • Define a role and career path for 'web Developers', don't let web pages be the thing trainees do before they move on to 'proper' development
  • Have a consistent vision for the whole website, educate the content developers to understand accessibility requirements
  • Choose a design agency which demonstrates an understanding of accessibility (assess the accessibility of websites in their portfolio, assess the accessibility of their own website, ask them to explain any shortcomings when they come in for an interview) - they chose Fortune Cookie

He also discussed the role of web standards with an anecdote from the early part of the project. One of Legal and General's web applications worked in IE but didn't work at all in Firefox, an attempt at validating the page showed several thousand errors but it turned out the main issue was a missing double quote on a single attribute. The point here is, if the page had been designed to validate from the start then an error like that would have stuck out like a sore thumb instead of being lost in a sea of other validation errors - Mike estimated this particular error cost the company approximately £20000 in lost business. One other thing Mike mentioned which stuck in my mind was that the biggest single asset in producing and accessible website was the imagination of the developer - they need to be able to imagine how differently abled people will interact with the site.

Overall this was probably the best talk of the night, there was a lot of information on the slides over and above what I discuss above including some detailed statistics, but, as the focus was on business issues, there was again a lack of practical examples, 4 out of 5.

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After the three talks there was a question and answer session which was very useful, touching on some of the legal requirements (British law requires a 'best effort' from the web developer so they should attempt to work around technological deficiencies; the RNIB and other similar organisations cannot sue you for having an inaccessible website, only individuals can sue; several legal actions have already been settled out of court) as well as some specific techniques and issues which hadn't be covered in the talks - Anne was particularly good.

Overall this was an excellent evening and I learned a lot, I'll be looking out for the next WSG meetup.