Rich Accessibility

Ok, I'll start with a confession.

I think accessibility issues have always been an abstract concept to me.

It usually was an afterthought, something that the usability folks dinged us for. You know the text wasn't dark enough or the font was too small. It seemed to me that every experience I had with accessibility was from the negative perspective.

You see, I love rich interfaces. I love visualizations. I enjoy pushing the envelope. Somehow in my mind I just saw accessibility and richness as mutually exclusive.

This all changed over the last two weeks. It happened almost the first time I met Victor Tsaran, Yahoo!'s Accessibility Evangelist/Manager. Victor is an incredibly bright engineer who happens to be non-sighted. If ever there was an evangelist and champion for accessibility, Victor is the man.

Victor does not come at accessibility from the negative aspect. Not at all. He approaches it with an enthusiasm, a sense of humor, and a challenge to create rich interfaces that are richly accessible.

Instead of just looking at the government mandates to comply to accessibility, what about accepting the challenge to create richer interfaces for those that need assistance? That is something that is tremendously exciting. Rich Accessibility. And there is movement afoot to make this much more possible.

The Challenge
Screen readers (one of the assistive technologies used for those without sight) parse in the page and break it down into sections, links, form controls, headers, etc. and allow the user to use shortcut keys to navigate the content. As it navigates the content the reader will use speech technology to read the content and provide as much contextual information as possible. For example, it can tell headers, links and controls from each other based on HTML markup. The speech is usually sped up considerably as the user gets proficient at understanding the speech at a high velocity. In fact, Victor can navigate most pages faster than a sighted user.

But with rich DHTML and Ajax techniques the screen readers comfortable world of page refresh and static page content goes away. What happens when content is updated dynamically? What about the lack of keyboard navigation of the custom DHMTL controls that is critical to being able to explore a rich interface? What about only supporting certain features with the mouse (e.g., drag and drop being the only avenue to perform certain tasks?)

Fortunately a lot is happening in the world of web accessibility. IBM recently donated a large amount of open source code to Mozilla to support accessibility (BTW, IE is on the game too). Ways to mark up HTML (and thus components) in a rich manner to cue screen readers that I have navigated to a tree control and its 3rd node out of 5 is currently open and has the name MyFile. And of course techniques for moving keyboard focus around. IBM, Mozilla and the screen reader companies (JAWS and Windows Eyes) are working together to make it possible to fully describe a rich interface to a non-sighted user and allow them to have a rich experience on the web.

This is an exciting time to be designing for the web! The promise is that we can design for richness for all users.

Learn about the current state of accessibility on the web or for fun try out the Firefox Screen Reader Emulator Extension. Finally, read Nate Koechley's blog, Yahoo!'s longtime champion for accessibility.