WPDFD Issue #48 - March 01, 2002
Like a lot of other people, I like to crash out on a Saturday night in front of a television set with a movie DVD. I hadn't really explored a DVD's 'options' menu before, other than to take the odd peek at out-takes or documentaries about special effects, so last Saturday night I thought I would investigate further. I understood the concept of 'captions' but what did 'commentary on/off' mean? Well, switching on the commentary and running the beginning of the film again made it all clear.
'Accessibility' is another of those buzzwords being used a lot in Web design circles these days, what does it really mean? Everybody has his or her own ideas about accessibility but to me, it's all about 'design'. The word 'design', in its proper sense, means making something better suited for its intended purpose. A well-designed car will take you from A to B, (and hopefully back again), with the minimum of fuss.
When the Internet and the World Wide Web began over a decade ago, its purpose was to allow government departments and academic institutions to share documents. The computers at that time weren't much good for graphics, so the document were mainly plain text. The Web today is still very document-centric, in fact, the 'T' in HTML means Text. Sure, we now use pictures, animation, sound and streaming video with varying degrees of success but the Web is primarily a textual medium.
To tell if something is well designed or not, you have to first identify its purpose and then decide if it satisfies that purpose. A Web page is no exception. A Web page is a vehicle for communication. The communication could be in the form of 'information' - as you would normally get from a reference book. With the benefits of hyperlinking and the sheer volume of information available, it is ideally suited to this task.
For a very basic, unstyled textual Web page, accessibility is not usually a problem. Remember, accessibility is not just about making a page readable by people with disabilities, it's about making it readable by everyone and anyone. Well, let's narrow the field a bit here. 'Everyone' and 'anyone' is a tall order. How do you make a photographer's portfolio site accessible to people with impaired or no vision?
Now, we come to the bit that is ignored by many of the 'accessibility' gurus. With the preponderance of the 'document' concept and all the technology and technologists, the emotive aspects of 'design' are often overlooked. Whatever they say, a picture is not a document. A Flash movie is not a document. The Web is no longer all text! If the major part of a Web page is not text then all the rules fly out the window.
Optimizing the accessibility of a website is mostly just common sense. There is 'function' and there is 'style' and an imaginary straight line that runs between the two but there are also situations that are some way off that line and not even running in parallel - bad functionality and bad style. Bad functionality usually happens when the site 'designer' either deliberately, or though ignorance, erects barriers to communication.
Bad style is something else. As the song goes, 'You've either got or you haven't got style'. If you are tone deaf, you will sing out of tune and be totally unaware of the fact until somebody else tells you. If you have bad visual style, you are probably equally unaware that your communications are 'out of tune' too. Communicating at an emotive level is impossible to avoid, you don't have to do anything to send a message of some kind.
Having done your best to avoid the barriers, there are some things you can do to actually improve the accessibility of your site generally and also the accessibility for people with disabilities. Some countries now make website accessibility mandatory for governmental public information sites and for others, it is just makes good sense. If you are just providing information, it should be quickly and easily found, understandable, be readable on any device that can access the Web and as devoid of extraneous matter as you can possibly manage.
A few years back, I bought a quite expensive set of Clip art CDs that came with a nicely printed book showing all the images categorized into sections and with their filenames. Unfortunately, actually finding those files proved to be a nightmare because the catalogue was badly organised and in many instances, just plain wrong. We all need to use a clip art item at some time or another but finding them is the problem – even when it's there on the desk beside you.
ArtToday has been going for about 5 years now and is Web-based rather than on CDs. Their marketing policy has changed a little over the years, they used to offer some images for free and then you paid a subscription to access the better stuff. Now, you have to buy a subscription but the terms are very flexible, you can have a one week subscription for only $7.95 and during that one week, download as many royalty-free images as you need.
Last month, I gave some links for validating your HTML. Here are some links to help test the accessibility of your pages. Bobby http://webxact.watchfire.com/ checks the accessibility of your pages for people with disabilities. For certain kinds of sites including many governmental and educational ones, this is mandatory, not just optional. http://www.webable.com/ has lots of links and resources to accessibility information and they also have an Accessibility Monitor that will check up to five URLs for you for free.