The state of accessibility in the real world

I consider myself to be pretty competent at making websites accessible but I know I don’t know everything. So one of the prime reasons for going to @media was to learn more from recognised experts in the field, and yet I came away confused and disillusioned.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything: Derek Featherstone’s working practices of an accessibility agency were extremely insightful, Joe Clark’s discussion of the needs of low vision users was an aspect largely overlooked and seeing Robin Christopherson – a blind JAWS user – demonstrate his daily struggle with a screen reader was a sharp reminder to us all.

But I wanted answers and none were forthcoming. I was aware that some of the issues (technical and otherwise) are still sketchy but I assumed that other people knew the answers. It seems not. I don’t know any more than I thought I did but we as an industry know less, which makes me wonder what ‘accessibility consultancies’ are telling people. Even those on the cutting edge of web accessibility have a long way to go. Here’s two big issues for a start:

Javascript support in screen readers

Screen readers are relatively easy to support. There’s no graphics to worry about, so just ensuring valid, meaningful mark-up and helpful alt text will get you most of the way there. But did you know that JAWS supports JavaScript? But it doesn’t just try to interpret Internet Explorer’s behaviour, it does its own thing too, and different versions of JAWS do it to varying degrees. So even if you’ve been good people and ensured your site works without JavaScript it might be your site still breaks in JAWS. For this reason, Derek Featherstone has gone so far as to recommend that JAWS users should disable JavaScript.

It’s worth adding that during a Q&A session, Robin Christopherson said that even skip links navigation are not necessary if you put navigation in a list because JAWS can just skip a list. But another blind reader in the audience disagreed with him on this principle. Which highlights another issue in itself: JAWS is so minutely configurable that one technique will help one person but hinder another, even if they have the same disability and use the same software.

Sites for low vision users

Not that many people are completely blind; a good deal more have some vision but there is very little provision for this group. Some low vision people use screen zoomers to magnify their entire screen, but many use normal browsers with text set to huge. Some find it easier with light text on a dark background, others prefer the inverse. Maybe Joe Clark’s zoom layouts are the solution for low vision users – they will certainly help some people – but are alternative style sheets enough or even the right approach? No-one knows, and that?s my point. WCAG 1 is too prescriptive and out-of-date to provide an answer, and the forthcoming WCAG 2 is looking too abstract and generic to help.

And I’ve conveniently omitted mentioning the needs of deaf people (captioning anyone?), those with reading difficulties, and many other people with particular needs. Time for an industry group with their arses in the real world to forge a path, methinks.