Web Essentials ’04 notes
What follows are notes from a presentation made 2004.09.30 in Sydney at the Web Essentials ’04 conference.
Day 1: The people in the neighbourhood
Everyone has a vague idea what a Web user looks like. Accessibility tells us there are many more kinds of users.
My presentation today focuses on the disabilities people have that affect their use of the Web and the kind broad steps we take to remove barriers.
The old audience
- Our mind’s-eye image of a Web user used to be a young single guy using el-cheapo equipment.
- Then Internet marketers tried to pressure us to believe that everybody had so many interests that we could all go to the same sites. Remember portals?
- By now we’ve grown up a lot and we understand that there are many kinds of Web users.
We now know there’s a Web site for everybody. We know there are a multiplicity of kinds of people who use the Web. We’re much more sophisticated these days as developers.
- But even sophisticated developers have their own biases and limitations. One method we have to develop and test Web sites now is the use of personas or use cases. We come up with imaginary Internet users and try to think how they will make use of our sites.
- These personas may be slightly older or younger people, or women, or people with specific interests or tasks or goals.
- But in nearly all those personas, the imaginary people we’re talking about would never know the difference between accessible and inaccessible sites. Disabled persons, however, will know the difference.
And that’s the difference between conveniently and easily using a Web site within the abilities you have or sitting there in frustration. In extreme cases, it’s the difference between using and not using a site at all.
People with disabilities have always been part of the Web audience. And that includes your corner of the Web. The next stage in cultivating the Web is to accept reality and accommodate this group.
Which kind of accessibility?
- If you’re at this seminar, you know we’re not making Web sites for nondisabled people anymore.
- We’re also not making Web sites for blind people.
- Our goal in these sessions today and tomorrow is to learn how to make Web sites that almost anyone can use, within extremely broad but still reasonable limits.
What is accessibility?
- The definition I use is “Making allowances for characteristics a person cannot change or cannot change easily.”
- Hence, accessibility is about people first, and only incidentally about the technologies they use. If you make a site that’s accessible to people with disabilities, it may work better on a PalmPilot, let’s say, but that’s a bonus, not a goal.
Why be accessible?
Many of you will have read or heard of the list of reasons to make Web sites accessible many times before. So I’m gonna start with a reason you probably will not have heard before.
- Because you can
- It’s technically simple and inexpensive in the majority of cases to make most sites reasonably accessible to most disabled people. And there are things we can still do even in the exceptional cases where it isn’t simple or inexpensive
- Because you have to
- The Disability Discrimination Act has been interpreted to state that inaccessible Web sites are an infringement on minority rights. Nobody’s passed an outright law yet requiring you to be accessible, but if somebody filed a complaint, you’d probably lose. It’s happened already!
- Because it makes you money
- Not all people with disabilities are poor or underemployed. One example is senior citizens, who often have considerable disposable income. People won’t buy your product or service if they can’t use your site
- Because of good public service
- The public sector has an obligation to serve the public. You aren’t doing that if the only people you’re serving are people without disabilities
- Because you’re mature
- Accessibility is a component of the growing movement toward Web standards. It’s a more mature method of making genuine Web sites as opposed to Internet Explorer sites
What isn’t accessibility?
- A text-only page.
- Any separate “accessible” version, except in multimedia.
- Any page custom-crafted for only a single disabled audience. That means if you make a so-called blind-friendly page, you still have not achieved accessibility.
- A page made for an unusual device, like PDAs or TV sets.
Some facts about people with disabilities
- 6% of the Australian population have a “sensory” disability, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
- Now, 6% doesn’t seem like a lot. Why are we going to all this trouble when we can serve 94% of the population by not going to all that trouble? Because, according to the ABS, 6% of the population equates to 1.2 million people. I don’t think anybody in this room can justify excluding over a million people when it’s technically possible to include them.
- In addition, some of the people with a mobility impairment – 14% of the population, or 2.6 million people – will be affected by Web accessibility.
- And finally, some people with an “intellectual” disability (about 3%) will be served by Web accessibility.
- The problem here is that statistics are nonspecific. Figures from the U.S. show that people with some disabilities have different participation rates than nondisabled people – that is, disabled people use the Internet less frequently than nondisabled people do.
- And there are other problems with the lack of detail in census figures. If you’re a paraplegic and you use a wheelchair, you almost certainly have no needs in Web accessibility, but you’re still lumped into the mobility-impaired category. Until the census starts asking specific questions about computer and Internet usage among people with disabilities, our numbers are going to be approximate – and probably inflated.
The point, though, is that we’re dealing with minorities. If the fact that the majority of the population is not disabled were the reason not to provide accessibility, well, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Whether the population you’re serving is 6% or 3% or some other number is beside the point. We know already that we’re creating accessible Web sites for a minority group. Or actually several of them.
Now let’s run through the major disability groups and what needs to be done in Web development to accommodate them.
- Best-known of the disabilities needing accessibility.
- And, in all fairness, blind and visually-impaired people need the biggest single boost. The fact is that computers are mostly monitors and screens. And the fact is that the Web is mostly visual, even though it has an underlying structure that computers can read. That’s why this group needs a bigger boost.
- The needs of blind people are different from those of low-vision people. We’re only now beginning to understand the needs of low-vision people. We finally have some research on the topic, for example.
Blind people typically use screen readers to surf the Web. Low-vision people tend to use screen magnifiers. These adaptive technologies have an influence on Web design. Everyone seems to try to build a site that works in Jaws, the single most popular screen reader. But again that’s essentially making a blind-only site rather than an accessible site.
- Colourblindness is not a significant problem in accessibility if you follow some easy rules.
- Almost never considered, in part because there isn’t that much audio online.
- There’s little research into the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing persons.
- What’s mostly needed are transcripts of audio. That’s sometimes difficult to do, especially on large sites.
- What we also need is captioning of video, which is usually even more difficult.
- There’s some evidence that easy-read versions of Web sites are helpful, but that’s inconclusive. That is, versions written in simpler language.
Mobility or dexterity impairment
- Also almost never considered.
- Little research.
- Here we need to consider a very large range of mobility restrictions. And we’re talking about the hands and arms, not the legs.
- Old methods to accommodate this group have largely been eliminated by better page design.
Surprisingly, sites with Flash-based interfaces show a large problem for this group because they cannot easily manipulate the controls.
- Learning disabilities and dyslexia are included here.
- Little research.
- Most Web sites may be unadaptable now – and in the future.
- Some sites can, however, be adapted for use and reuse in different methods of presentation.