Joint BSI/JISC CETIS Accessibility Workshop

February’s Accessibility SIG (Special Interest Group) meeting was jointly run with BSI (British Standards Institution) as an informal workshop, focussing on the accessibility standards’ work being done around the world across various domains. It took advantage of the presence of a number of international standards developers and strategists, who were in the UK (United Kingdom) at the time, to foster exchange of work and ideas between the standards and education communities.

Presentations ranged from an overview of the accessibility standards work being done across the globe by Alex Li (Microsoft) to the development of accessible widgets by Elaine Pearson and her team at Teesside University.

Several of the presenters talked about their ongoing work in accessibility specifications and have asked for feedback from the community. So if you would like be involved in helping to shape these developments, people working on the following specifications would really appreciate your feedback:

* Standardisation Mandate M/376 (Phase 2) – Dave Sawdon from TRE Limited described how this work will create European accessibility requirements for the public procurement of products and services in the ICT domain (similar to the American VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template), which was introduced by Ken Salaets of the Information Technology Industry Council). The development team are particularly looking for public procurement officials to help define this standard.
* Access For All v.3.0 – works on the premise that personalisation preferences need to be machine readable, so it uses metadata to describe these personal needs and preferences. Andy Heath and the specification development team at IMS would like people to download it, try it out, implement it, check it works, and provide feedback.
* BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility. Code of practice – Jonathan Hassell, BBC, talked us through the background and purpose the recent web accessibility Code of Practice and Brian Kelly, UKOLN presented BS 8878 in the context of an holistic approach to accessibility. However, whilst it is now available for public use, user testing of the Code of Practice can only really be done in the field, so please join the community of practice and provide feedback on your experiences of implementing BS 8878.
* Mobile Applications Accessibility Standard – This standard, proposed by Yacoob Woozer of the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), is still very much at the drawing board stage, with the focus on mobile applications rather than on creating websites that can viewed on different devices. However, suggesstions on what to include in the standard would be welcome.

Several of the presentations focussed on the work of specific standards bodies – David Fatscher from BSI gave us an overview of BSI; the various ISO standards which feature accessibility elements were introduced by Jim Carter from the University of Saskatchewan; and Shadi Abou-Zahra of W3C talked about the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) guidelines.

And finally, I am very much appreciative of the work that the BSI staff and Andy Heath put into making this event such a success. It was it was a great opportunity for the standards and education sectors to get together and I hope that some lasting collaborations have been forged.

Accessible Twitter

If you’d love to inhabit the Twitosphere but find it somewhat inaccessible, then you might want to try Accessible Twitter. Among other features, it provides keyboard accessible links, a larger default text size, and audio cues which let you know when you’re reaching your character limit.

The application is still at alpha stage with more features at the task list and wish list stage. There’s also an interview with its creator, Dennis Lembree, over on the Accessify blog, which will give you a good insight into how the design came about.

Whilst most Web 2.0 apps are initially inaccessible, once they become mainstream, there does seem to be a drive by independent developers to try make them accessible (providing they can hook into the relevant bits of the backend code). So is this almost collaborative approach to producing accessible, usable apps the way forward rather than trying to do everything in-house?

One Person’s Strategy is Another’s Barrier

Accessibility is very personal - what works for one person may not work for another.  The “one size fits all” approach has been tried and although admirable in its intentions has often proved difficult to implement.

The W3C WCAG (World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Guidelines) v 1.0 tried a technical approach to accessibility by setting out a number of accessibility guidelines, which could be automatically tested by online validators such as Bobby. Whilst this automatic validation can validate the HTML code, many of guidelines require human input and common sense.  For example, whilst an automated accessibility validator can check that an image has an alt text tag, it cannot check that the tag actually makes sense.  People who don’t use images, such as those using mobile technologies or visually impaired people still need to know whether an image is important to the content or not.  An image with an alt tag of “image01.jpg” gives no information to website users, whilst an alt tag of “Photograph of Winston Churchill” would not only aid navigation through a web page, but it would also provide information that the image does not provide additional information to the text, so the user knows they are not missing out on anything.  As well as this, users could hover a mouse over the image to see the alt text.  This could be useful where an image doesn’t have a text caption underneath.

Difficulties with adhering to such guidelines and standards can cause barriers for people because content developers may then try to produce content to the lowest common denominator, i.e. text only.  Although text can be easily accessed by people using screen readers, it can be difficult for people with dyslexia to read and is visually unappealing.  So in this case, whilst the content is accessible for people using screen readers, it is less accessible for people with dyslexia.

Despite the drawbacks, this standardisation (“one size fits all”) approach is important.  Without a set of guidelines, developers may not know where to begin with accessibility and may not approach the basics in the same way, thereby reducing interoperability with assistive and other technologies.

One way to complement the standards approach is to produce alternative but equivalent versions of content.  For example, transcripts can be provided for podcasts, text heavy content can be offered as with animations or images or in simple language for people with learning disabilities or language learners.  This holistic approach has been proposed by Kelly, Phipps, and Howell in Implementing a Holistic Approach to e-Learning Accessibility.  This approach also takes student learning styles and pedagogy into account as well as technical and usablity issues.

Standards and guidelines are important but they need to be used with common sense and in combination with other approaches. Standards and guidelines can help with the physical presentation of the content, whilst holistic and other approaches can help the user to interact and use that content in the format best suited to their needs.