FOWA Dublin 2009: Robin Christopherson (AbilityNet) – “Apps for All in a Web 2.0 World”

The second talk I attended at FOWA Dublin 2009 was given by Robin Christopherson from UK organisation AbilityNet, focussing on the accessibility of web applications. AbilityNet is a UK charity that deals with disabilities and technology (carrying out accessibility audits, disabled user testing, and web design). As well as looking at the Web, they assess people at home or in work to make sure that they can use various computing devices, mobile phones, set-top boxes, and other consumer electronics.

Photo by Naomi Kelly.
Photo by Naomi Kelly.

Robin’s talk was refreshing in that he didn’t have any slides; rather he used a selection of websites with varying levels of text and multimedia content to give some demonstrations of good and bad practice in terms of accessibility compliance. Robin is himself visually impaired, and his talk certainly alerted many in the audience to pitfalls that they had not previously considered.

Robin started off by talking about the importance of accessibility. Web designers can get so excited when building an application that they often forget a substantial proportion of their customer base. 10% of people (possibly as high as 20%) can have an impairment that will result in them having problems with a particular web application. These impairments include age-related conditions, dyslexia, visual impairments, etc., and people with impairments will often find that a particular user interface is not very user intuitive.

One of the main issues in relation to accessibility is the humble CAPTCHA. The CAPTCHA is a visually-corrupted piece of text that can only be visually interpreted by people, and is used as a verification method to prevent automated processes from signing up for web accounts (typically for spam purposes). OCR (optical character recognition) cannot be used to recognise a CAPTCHA. Researchers in Newcastle recently cracked the captchas of both Microsoft and Yahoo!, but the companies then made them more complex. The CAPTCHA can be very inconvenient for those visually-impaired people who don’t have other people to help them out.

On the Web, you can hardly do anything without setting up an account (the sites that allow you to “try before you buy” are few and far between, and for many services, this would simply not be feasible). As Robin said, if you cannot get through the door you are absolutely stuck. Some sites have an audio version of the CAPTCHA, but by no means all of them do. However, it is absolutely impossible to use these audio renderings. Google is one of the few sites that has a third method of verification for people with screen readers. A hidden image takes you to a customer services page which allows you to request a manual subscription, and this means that a human must then check over your details and manually enable your account. The difficulty here is that sometimes they still won’t set up your account for one reason or another, and they may forward you to another page for further verification.

Robin demonstrated a nice application for people in the UK called FixMyStreet that makes it very easy to report an issue in your local area. Putting in a postcode produces an interactive map that you can then click on to report a problem. For such applications, it is important to make sure that things don’t break with JavaScript disabled, e.g. for mobile devices. Even with JavaScript turned off, you can scroll a map in FixMyStreet and put a pin on a particular location. If you can’t see the map for placing a pin, you can still report a problem. This is handy for people with handheld devices.

Robin gave another example with Google Maps. Sometimes there may be a need for a text alternative if someone can’t view a map. Google Maps has a good text-only rendering, which can be enabled by adding a switch to the end (?output=html).

ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is very important from an accessibility point of view. There are a huge number of web applications that use controls and pop-up menus that are extremely difficult for keyboard-only or no-mouse users. For example, Radio New Zealand uses ARIA and has a slider control for moving through the audio. Various keyboard shortcuts can be used to control functions instantly.

Robin then gave an ARIA Live Regions example. He said that it would be fantastic if Twitter could tell someone (using audio) how many characters are left. With ARIA Live Regions, you can can add assertive reminders at certain time intervals. You can also set it up so that pressing each keystroke will flush the buffer since you don’t need a complete history of what has been reported, you just need to know the last message (i.e. the number of characters left).

Another example of poor use of multimedia for accessibility is the autostarting of videos in YouTube. This makes it hard to find or hear what buttons would be required for pausing the video since the audio has already started. It is always good to have user-driven animation rather than autostarting. You could make it loop a couple of times and then let it stop if possible.

It is also very hard to have a liquid, scalable, flexible design on websites. Number 10 relaunched their website recently. It is a nice website, but despite the provision of scalable text, when you increase the text size, things go horribly wrong due to fixed-width areas. The site also has a lot of video clips and Flash activity.

Robin also talked about the 2012 London Olympics site as it had flickering graphics that caused issues with photosensitivity. There is a tool from the Trace Centre that can be used to check multimedia for people with epilepsy.

For multimedia, it is very important to have an audio description. Also, it is important to have alternate text on images rather than have someone go through all the images to find a link that may be relevant. Flash doesn’t always (depending on how it is designed) work well with audio readers, so this can make it difficult for people to navigate, as they may need to use arrows to move to a part of a grid (or subgrid) on the Flash graphic. Robin finished by referring us to the JK Rowling website as they have a very accessible Flash version.

(As an aside, the W3C recently published version 2 of their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a W3C Recommendation, and version 1 of its Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) document is available as a W3C Working Draft. The WCAG guidelines define four principles that websites should follow: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. For example, one guideline is that web applications should “provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms that people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language”.)

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