alt.www.webmaster Notes for Novices


Insight into Accessibility

On July 24, 2003, I spoke at length with a XXXXXX Credit Union member named [Nunya Bidness]. Nunya is employed by XXXX and works at their headquarters. While I did not want to offend him by asking, I have the feeling that he may have had normal sight at one time and lost his site later.  Regardless, he is completely blind now and uses adaptive technology in order to interact with his computer. Specifically, he uses a product
called "Window Eyes" as his browser.

"Window Eyes" is manufactured by a company called GW Micro and it works alongside Microsoft Windows' accessibility features in order to enhance the user's ability to interact with the computer by enhancing navigation through the browser interface and by relaying aurally what is being displayed on the screen.

Those without vision are often cited as the target audience for accessible design. While this is not completely accurate, blindness does represent huge challenges for interacting with a computer. While large software corporations tend to do a somewhat acceptable job at enabling accessible interaction, websites tend to be hit or miss--most often "miss." In my opinion, it ventures into the realm of discrimination when a website does not take even the most basic efforts to make their website accessible.

While I have a large amount of knowledge of the recommendations for accessible design, I have had very little experience with the effect that accessible features have on true ease of use for those who use adaptive technology. Despite having a (freeware) screen reader at home, I still have the benefit of already knowing what I am looking at when I listen to my own work. It is an entirely different experience when experiencing a site fresh without ever having visited the site before.

Having heard about Nunya from [co-worker], I asked him to talk to Nunya to see if he'd be willing to give me feedback on the XXXXXX Credit Union website. [coworker] did so and Nunya told him he'd welcome my call. We traded phone messages a few times and finally spoke today. I'd like to fill you in on the feedback Nunya gave me. I'd like to caution you though, that Nunya is not representative of all persons who benefit from accessibility efforts, nor is he representative of all persons who are blind. He is extremely intelligent, has a lot of computer experience, and benefits from a very feature-rich piece of technology to help him interact with his computer. The basic tenet of accessible design is that there are so many possible disabilities to overcome as well as far too many variances in severity and means to adapt that the best approach is to design for access by all, not just one.

Nunya made mention of five items during our conversation that I paid particular attention to:

1. Opening new windows - Nunya said that the website opens far too many needless windows which become somewhat of a pain to close.

2. Forms - Nunya said that some of the form items on the site were completely unusable.  Specifically, he mentioned the calculators as being a website feature that he was completely unable to use. This is because the form elements are not associated with their labels. He applauded the accessibility of our survey for "reading well" early in our conversation and made specific mention of the calculators later. I took this to mean that all of our forms are unusable because none of them display any effort in making them accessible. I view this as an issue that our third party vendors should "repair" and recommend bringing this fact up to them.

3. Alternative text attributes (aka "alt tags") - Nunya mentioned a few instances where alt attributes were missing from the site or where they made no sense in context with the rest of the page. He affirmed my belief that alt attributes are often better off left empty than actually filled with text that conveys no information that would add to the understanding of the overall content.

4. Images as links adjacent to text links to the same destination - Nunya mentioned that it is often annoying or confusing to have an image used as a link next to a text link that goes to the same destination (i.e. our home page). This is something I had personally never thought much about, however after hearing him mention it, I can understand why. Basically, he has to listen to the same link twice. That certainly must be annoying.

5. Search box - Nunya affirmed my fear that the search box (and presumably all form controls on the right side of the template) is unusable, as they have no controls but rather rely on JavaScript to operate.

I was surprised that he didn't mention more issues. In a way it was a relief, as I was afraid that there was far more we could do to make the website more accessible and that we were falling tragically short. He mentioned that some of the oft-heard accessibility features such as accesskeys, acronym tags, or title attributes are not supported well enough by adaptive technology to be useful to him.

I think Nunya was great to talk to because of his experience with computers. His ability to understand what is going on behind the scenes on a web page helped steer the conversation in a valuable direction. He affirmed many of my concerns but interestingly, also eased my fears in some ways as well. The fact that the site is built around tables has troubled me. He and I discussed tables for some time and especially the manner in which they are linearized by adaptive technology. He assured me that the XXXXXX Credit Union website "read well" when linearized. I also got the impression that he cautioned against nesting too many tables inside of each other--a practice often used for more control in laying out a page's elements.

Working alongside Tech Services, numerous small accessibility repairs are in process at this time. In fact, all of the above concerns were primary or related to primary issues that we are presently addressing in order to ensure equal access to our online resources. When they are completed, I plan to get together with Nunya again to assess the effect the changes have to making the site easier to use for all members of the credit union.

Karl Core

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