Monday, 12 May 2008

Making it accessible from the start

I wanted to talk about basic accessibility and maybe point some of you towards good advice on creating accessible learning resources. Slightly off tack with Web 2.0, but not hugely, and if it drops you back to Web 2.0 by a round about route, so much the better!

When you're writing something, your aim is to get your information across as clearly as possible, isn't it? You're making it 'accessible' to your readers, whoever and wherever they are. You want to make sure everyone can read it. So when it comes to writing it and publishing it online you want to think about those who may not be able to read it in standard print and may use screenreaders or other assistive technology. So....
  1. Basic text/Word document - Microsoft may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's the Word processing system a vast majority of people use. This is where you can start to build in accessibility. Assistive software like JAWS makes use of the Headings and Styles you get in Word documents. Although I've yet to use OpenOffice, the open source document writer, it also has the ability to implement styles and headings, and should also work with JAWS (something I'll try out later). So when you're writing your document/information you want to get across, have thought about it's layout, you really want to use those Headings and Styles. The best information I've come across so far in creating accessibility in Word docs is the TechDis Accessibility Essentials series. I learnt a lot from these and have taken all of their advice on board. It's simple and easy to add in Headings and Styles from the very beginning and can make a huge difference to people who may just need to adjust the size of the font, to those who use assistive technology. Let's stop using computers as typewriters and make the most of them!
  2. PDF documents - If you've already created your document using Word or another Text based document writer, converting it into an Adobe PDF file is easy with Adobe Standard or Adobe Professional. All of your headings will be kept and it will be accessible with screen readers. Adobe have been improving their accessibility in recent years. PDF image files are frowned upon, and although some users of assistive technology can make use of them, if they have OCR conversion software such as Kurzweil, don't make them available publicly on a website unless you want lots of angry complaints!
  3. Web pages - In general, if as above, you consider the structure of your information and make sure you have headings defined you will be on the way to improving accessibility. The move these days, I think, is towards XHTML, CSS and XML. These all build on HTML, and whilst not an expert in their use, I can see that XHTML is a cleaner form of mark-up language and that Cascading Style Sheets [CSS] provide an excellent opportunity for adding accessibility and making life easier for the web author. There are a wealth of resources on adding accessibility into your web pages, but don't just think about making sure it gets those little ticks by sticking it through the validator, think as well about the visual impact, how it's laid out, whether you can change the font size and what the font looks like. The RNIB have some nice helpful documents and also will do web accessibility testing for you and run training courses. Their Clearprint information is worthwhile.
There's quite a few good websites dedicated to making websites accessible. Using a search engine and a few search terms, such as 'web accessibility' or 'writing accessible web pages' should yield some interesting results. The ones I discovered:
Web accessibility is surprisingly easy, but it does involve thinking about structure and not just the visual design. Good design though, includes accessibility, giving everyone the same opportunity to find out the same information.


Leon Gilbert said...

Hi Ruth and what an interesting post. As someone who trains blind & VI people in computing (both for my day job and otherwise) I am always on the lookout for usable and up to date information on access tech in education, a craving which is fulfilled by your own blog rather nicely...

How about this for a link for your "interesting bits of stuff",

All the best & Keep up the great work. Leon Gilbert

Ruth said...

Thanks Leon - duly added - and very flattered to be added as a link on your excellent site!

Anonymous said...

Another resource for web accessibility:

WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind. They provide a very useful accessibility tool called Wave which uses a visual display to help assess how accessible a webpage is.

They also host a very active mailing list and a forum for discussion of accessibility. There are some extremely knowledgable people on the mailing list but sometimes the replies can be a bit sharp.

Ruth said...

Thanks Penny. I discovered them the other day when crawling around the web looking for information on AJAX. They seem very knowledgable. I'll check out their Wave tool.