Accessibility for newbies

In her recent post, Heidi writes about the incomprehensibility of accessibility material on the web. To an extent, I agree. On the other hand, the concept itself is far from being cut-and-dried: Start defining accessibility for starters! While she goes on to recommend quick testing lists for accessibility, I'd be a bit more constrained on this. Of course, testing the site is by no means a bad idea, but testing without understanding the context you're working in is an entirely different thing.
The innate problem with learning accessibility is that it is not about learning a certain technique or understanding a few key concepts. It's not a module of knowledge you can easily add to your existing base of knowledge. It's more about a way of thinking and using the existing technology – and true expertise in the field is hard to gain without heavy practice. (By the way, I find the learning process to be very similar to the one in application security field!)
Just like web app security isn't about html encoding, accessibility is not about proper alt texts and tableless layouts. While those are important parts of their respective fields, they're only tools. The key is understanding human behavior and limitations. This is incredibly hard. Building architecture has had millenia to develop, but even today only few buildings are truly accessible for all groups of people!
For web sites, you can get far by getting rid of the technical hindrances. But once you have perfect textual replacements and a fully working linear layout, are you accessible? Perhaps. But for most cases (like this blog!), the problems lie in the content and its organization. Perhaps it's written in complex enough language to leave most of the population out in the cold? Perhaps the site is structured in a way that, while being technically navigable using a screen reader, actually requires a visual layout to make sense or be rememberable (i.e. usable)? Are you ready to seriously reshape your original vision of the site, or did you just want to get away with getting the technical approval from Bobby?
All that said, I agree accessibility needs demystification. There is room for good tutorials – but like many important philosophies, it cannot be properly approached from a technological point of view. Again, there's more room for useful testing metrics. Stepping into the boots of a f.e. blind person is something most people with normal vision cannot reliably do. Making a young web designer evaluate the usability of a site from the perspective of a 70-year person with little practical web experience or subject matter knowledge is… well, irresponsible.
If you can read Finnish, Jukka Korpela's book Web-suunnittelu is actually a decent example of taking accessibility into account without making too much noise about it. Once you know the basics, the W3C checklist for WAI with all its links is a good next target.

May 19, 2005 В· Jouni Heikniemi В· 3 Comments
Posted in: Web

3 Responses

  1. Shadows She Said - May 19, 2005

    More about accessibility for the masses

  2. Heidi - May 19, 2005

    Thanks for the inspiring reply. :) I started writing a comment here for you but it got so big that I decided to make a post of my own. So, catch you there… ;-)

  3. Aaron Leventhal - May 29, 2005

    I believe the IBM resources is much easier for accessibility newbies to understand than the W3C guidelines —