Web Accessibility at Refresh Baltimore

Mike Brenner and Reinhard Stebner

Reinhard Stebner provided an engaging talk on Web Accessibility this evening at MICA. This post contains a few of my favorite highlights. I’d like to note here that Bill Mill is a good sport.

I’ve read and thought a lot about Web Accessibility. I’ve used JAWS to test sites and worked to make Flash more accessible in client projects. Yet, it’s so valuable to watch a skilled, unsighted user like Mr. Stebner navigate a system. Just as no two people will use Microsoft Excel the exact same way, there are many ways to use JAWS and Windows Eyes. And just as each Web browser handles CSS slightly differently, accessibility software varies from product to product.

Jaws will ignore display:none; in css and Windows Eyes will not. Instead, Mr. Stebner suggests using positioning to handle things we don’t want to be visible (top:0; left:-9999;) and then dealing with the hidden items contextually with labels.

He emphasized usability vs. accessibly and demonstrated how sites can be technically accessible and yet hardly usable. Having a highly usable site is a win for everyone. That’s common sense and therefore not always achieved. Headings should be used appropriately, as many people will navigate a page through its headings. They should be meaningful and used correctly. Specifying a tab-index is a bad idea, as it makes the arrow-key functionality not work and many people use arrow keys to navigate content. Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

The item that gave me the most to think about is the idea of using lists to organize links. In HTML, a list is a collection of things. Putting a navigation structure, which is just a collection of hyperlinks, in a list is supposed to allow screen readers to pause between each link instead of reading all the links as a sentence. Semantically, this makes sense. We use HTML to apply meaningful mark-up to content – making things lists seems like a good idea. Yet, there’s no easy way to identify a list as a set of links, so a page with 12 sets of links can be very confusing. He demonstrated this with Jaws.

We touched on ARIA as a way to help deal with some of this, and instead of using lists for links, he would like to see more <div> and <spans> used.

I’m really glad I had a chance to see some examples of what works well and doesn’t with JAWS. And, I didn’t know about a JAWS feature called Virtual View, which allows the visitor to access extra information about the DOM, like class and id names. This supports the notion that class and id names should be as semantic as HTML itself.

It was a great talk. Please note that Mr. Stebner also provides accessibility consultations, should anyone want to hire him for his services.

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17 Responses to Web Accessibility at Refresh Baltimore

  1. Reinhard Stebner says:

    Jim,

    Thank you very much for your kind words. I truly enjoyed coming out and presenting to this group. The philosophy of accessibility VS. usability has been a very important topic ever since I first started using the web in the late 90′s. Please let me know if you have any additional questions or comments.

  2. Accessibility vs Usability could become a huge topic moving forward as sites become WAI compliant, yet do not offer a pleasing, usable experience.

    I felt it was a huge privilege to observe web browsing by a skilled JAWS user. Reinhard, have you considered publishing a podcast? The audio of your browsing session and comments were amazing to hear. I’m imagining a 10 minute podcast where you would browse a popular website and comment on the Accessibility/Usability of it. Web developers and designers would find this information invaluable!

  3. Samantha Armacost says:

    I completely agree, Jonathan, in regard to how even just one podcast of Reinhard’s experience browsing a popular website would be extremely valuable.

  4. Reinhard Stebner says:

    I have thought about it and am currently trying to figure out how to make it work (in terms of what web sites and technologies to use and the technical knowhow). It would be also interesting to sit with a developer and broadcast this conversation. Do you know of any volunteer web sites that could be used for the demonstration?

  5. Aaron says:

    Great writeup, Jim. Sounds like a really good event.

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  13. Thanks for writing this up, Jim. I think Reinhard Stebner, & others like him, should REGULARLY present at conferences… and do podcasts, videos & anything else they can do to get the information out there. There are many of us that care about accessibility—and we do what we believe makes our sites more accessible. But though we might use a screenreader to test, we’ll never use it like a pro. This information is invaluable to the entire web community. Please keep it up!

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