Scripting Enabled: accessibility gets “a swift kick up the backside”

It all started in April at Accessibility 2.0 when Antonia Hyde, during her presentation on Rich Media for People with Learning Difficulties asked:

is it too much to have a multimedia player that people with learning disabilities can use?

A certain Flame Haired Warrior, Chris Heilmann, just so happened to be sitting in the audience about to present his own take on accessibility, Fencing the Habitat, in which he said the problem with accessibility was focused too much on stats and the business case and not enough on building solutions based on what real people want. Bingo, the start of a beautiful relationship that eventually gave birth to Easy YouTube.

What snowballed after that day has been well documented, with the latest outcome being an amazing couple of days organised by Chris called Scripting Enabled which took place over the weekend. The aim? Geeks talk to real people about what the problems are and then fix them.

So here’s what happened (all slides are available here).

The problems

Day one set out to discuss the issues that people face on the web and what people want to be fixed. The presenters all brought something new to the table and as Chris summed up at the end of the day “It’s rare to go to a conference and not be bored or have heard it all before”.

The reason why the day worked so well is because there was none of the usual utterings you get around accessibility such as it “…makes great business sense”, “…better search engine optimisation”, “…you’ll look all nice and fluffy” and so on. No, it was about hearing from people about their experiences on the web and getting to grips with their issues and not just those set out in guidelines.

Denise Stephens, from Enabled By Design, kicked off the presentations with Barriers faced by People with Changing Conditions (emphasis my own). Enable by Design is a social network Denise set up to support anyone looking to make adjustments to their lives through the use of assistive equipment. Denise herself has MS which brings with it a myriad of changing problems, such as vertigo, numbness in her hands, changing sight, hearing and mobility; all of which make her regular day to day activities a challenge. Denise really set the context for the day by flagging that accessibility is about real people not just standards and guidelines.

Kath Moonan from AbilityNet then rocked the floor (with a little help form Siouxie Sioux) with Why I hate the Interwebs. She showed some great videos of people navigating websites (filmed in AbilityNet’s shiny new User Testing Lab) illustrating barriers people face that fall outside of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Her colleague Johan showed us just how problematic scrolling is for him when viewing web pages, an issue that got picked up on quite a lot in the question and answer session after. Custom Style Sheets were suggested as one answer but is problematic to implement as a person needs to know what these are and how to install them. It was also clear that there are issues with people not always knowing what is available in their browser to help them browse web pages. For example one neat solution for the problem of scrolling is using Opera’s Small Screen Mode (View> Small Screen) which removes scrolling altogether. Another is making easy to use custom style sheets that can be made available via the browser. This is something the RNIB Surf Right Toolbar is doing (and they’re very keen to hear from people what they want).

Problems flagged by Kath were re-emphaised by Antonia Hyde of United Response with Online Content for People with Learning Difficulties – Opening Doors. Again with the help of videos of people with learning difficulties we met Lizzie who, like many people, feels “singled out” by Web 2.0 and social networking API’s because she can’t figure them out. We saw how she struggled to navigate the cluttered interface of YouTube but found what she was looking for almost instantly on Easy YouTube. Antonia drove the point home that people with learning difficulties can learn; we just need to do things differently to support them. In fact a big ask of the day is that YouTube have a link to Easy YouTube for those that may want to use it.

After lunch Artur Ortega from Yahoo! and Leonie Watson from Nomensa discussed Barriers for Screen Readers and how JavaScript can help. So often people assume that JavaScript is the work of the devil when it comes to accessibility when really it’s not when implemented correctly. Unfortunately the internet said “No” to Artur showing us his pre-prepared websites so we weren’t able to see the JavaScript examples he’d  pulled together but these are now available on the Scripting Enabled blog.

Last up was Jonathan Hassell of the BBC who did a joint presentation with Phil Teare on Dyslexia Barriers. They looked at how Web 2.0 is about people contributing text online via blogs, forums, comments and so flagging how writing text in public forums is uncomfortable for many people with dyslexia. Easy solutions are providing spell checkers, preview options in forms and the opportunity to change text. This also made me think about a new checkpoint in WCAG 2.0 that focuses on Error Handling; something that is never given enough consideration.

Lack of control over the page and being able to view pages as you want is a huge problem. Giving people the option to personalise pages and choose colours, fonts and content is a great way round this. Personalising websites that you are signed up to is also great for people who are working on shared computers and can’t easily change system and browser settings.

We wrapped up with an excellent panel from some of the day’s speakers including Jonathan Hassell, Kath Moonan, and Artur Ortega, as well as freelance accessibility consultant and developer Ann McMeekin.

Ann, coming very much from the design perspective, summed up neatly how accessibility should be seamless and not hived off into a separate solution by describing a set of stairs she had photographed at the Brunswick Centre. Rather than placing a traditional ramp next to the steps the ramp is integrated into the steps themselves making them, in my opinion, much more aesthetically pleasing as well as accessible.

Seamless design of a ramp into stairs in London's Brunswick Centre

The fixes

Day two was about taking some of the ideas from day one and brainstorming and hacking. Some of the stuff being worked on included:

  • Longplay Wiki – a wiki that includes videos of how people with disabilities get around certain problems they encounter for others to benefit from; a bit like Video Jug. Even if it’s not a wiki there could be a YouTube group set up for it. Roger Wilson Hinds (creator of the free open source screen reader Thunder) suggested the group could be called YouTwo. Having it all available in Easy YouTube would round it off perfectly.
  • Accessible WYSIWYG editor – I don’t know of one organisation who isn’t struggling to find a fully accessible Rich Text Editor for their content management systems, blogs or forums. Having the community come up with a solution that can then be used universally would remove big headaches that organisations committed to accessibility are facing.
  • Screen part highlighter – David Owens got stuck into making a highlighter so that the user could highlight only the part of the screen that they wish to look at while the rest is greyed out. This would help many a person who finds overcrowding on a page and overuse of animated images a problem. I love the idea of having a virtual set of binoculars so you can zone in on the bit you want.
  • Custom CSS for zooming – picking up on the custom CSS idea Caz Mockett began creating a CSS file that you could save as a bookmarklet or via GreaseMonkey to change the way pages look.
  • Google Maps – using the Easy YouTube concept Jon Gibbons (aka Dotjay), Ann McMeekin, Marco Ranon and Andy Ronksley started look at ways to make bigger buttons and improve navigability. They’re still working on this but will be releasing the URL soon.

These were only some of the hacks being worked on during the day. Others including microformats and marking up accessible buildings, further work on Easy YouTube, talking Gutenberg, easy ways to distribute GreaseMonkey scripts, mashing up Lonely Planet with ordinance survey maps and Twitter walking instructions are all written about on the Scripting Enabled wiki (see below).

What you can do

The key now is to make sure that the momentum established over the last couple of days is kept up. Whether you are someone using the web who has ideas or a designer, developer consultant or just about anyone with an interest in accessibility there are a number of ways to get involved:

  • Join the Scripting Enabled mailing list – whether you have ideas around what you want to see changed on the web or are someone who can hack these changes get involved. This is all about getting the geeks to talk to the people who need things fixing.
  • Check out the Scripting Enabled wiki – this is where you’ll find outlines of what people are working on, what people are thinking and how you can contribute.
  • Run a Scripting Enabled event – Chris is more than happy for the format of Scripting Enabled to be run elsewhere. Already Stanford University are doing one so why not do one of your own? The more the better.
  • Use the tag “scriptingenabled” – the more we talk about Scripting Enabled and what it is and get more people involved the better. So use the tag on Flickr, Youtube, Yahoo Video, Vimeo, Blip.tv, Yahoo Live, Magnolia, delicious, blogging, twitter, Facebook everything.

And finally

Interestingly just this morning I read one of Justin Thorpe’s latest blog posts Has the Web Standards and Web Accessibility Movement lost its Mojo?

It really seems like all the excitement around things like Web standards, Web accessibility, microformats, and such has stopped completely…Is this good? Have we achieved success? Is the world accessible and standards compliant… or have we just become incredibly complacent?

What’s changed is that web standards and accessibility are no longer at a point where they have to be explained and sold to every web professional and organisation with a website. In the UK at least there is a good awareness. As one person commented on Justin’s blog web standards and accessibility has gone from “being sexy to being professional”. But what we do need are more visible solutions out there.

Over the last couple of days I saw just how many super skilled people are out there who know what they are doing and just how much can be achieved when they work together. It’s these people that need to be talking to real users, hacking solutions and putting them out there. That way web standards and accessibility gets life breathed into them that goes beyond guidelines and checklisting.

Christian certainly achieved in the two days what he set out to do: to give the accessibility community a swift kick up the backside. The overall message is loud and clear: keep talking, keep hacking and most of all keep sharing. The more we work together and pool our knowledge the faster things will change.

All presentations were filmed by BBC Backstage with transcripts sponsored by Opera so stay tuned for these; I’ll post a link when they are available. And finally don’t forget to vote for the Flame Haired Warrior in the Standards Champion category of the .Net Awards 2008.

5 thoughts on “Scripting Enabled: accessibility gets “a swift kick up the backside”

  1. This is just great:
    “Denise really set the context for the day by flagging that accessibility is about real people not just standards and guidelines.”

    Hope this event continues to spread all around the world.

  2. Sounds like it was a great event, I didn’t think I’d be able to offer much so stayed at home but I’d love to use some of these fixes on an upcoming project targeted squarely at people with disabilities.

  3. This is an excellent article Henny.

    It sounds like a brilliant day. i’d love to get something like this going over here in Australia…

  4. Hi Henny,
    thanks for writing this up. I had a fantastic day, it really did feel very down to earth and let’s get on with it.

    It’s certainly given me a lot to think about in terms of what we can do at AbilityNet.

    Good to see you there as always, thanks for all your support,

    Kath

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