Friday, 27 June 2008

Conference Mania

I do very much enjoy organising things (possibly why I started out life as a Librarian!) and for the past few months have been sorting things out for the CLAUD 2008 Conference. Our theme this year is on accessible information, which is why we've called it "Not always the full text: working towards accessible learning resources".
It's been quite a task, especially organising it for a venue I've never seen before (others have as the 2006 Conference was there) and with Committee members scattered over the South and South-West of England. This year we got in some great admin help in the form of a staff member in another department (thank you Steve!) doing it in his own time (don't worry, we paid him!), so it's been less stressful and more fun.
I've learnt so much about organising conferences, I've even started looking into organising an assistive technology event in Oxford for next March - I just can't get enough.
So we're in the final stretch with the conference next Thursday, with the numbers finally in and people letting me know what they want for the evening meal on Day 1 (it's two days and residential). The badges have been printed, I've got most of the presentations, I'm sorting out the Braille and the Large Print documents. Fingers crossed for the 3rd & 4th July - off to look into making audio recordings of the presentations to put online - that's where Web 2.0 comes in!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Too much accessibility?

I've become increasingly aware lately that in some cases we can go overboard in our attempts to make online information accessible. Much is said about a lack of accessibility, but I also believe it's possible to add too much. What we are striving for is Aristotle's Golden Mean, the middle way, treading a line between something inaccessible and something with so many added features for "the disabled" that they themselves become unusable.
Last week I was looking into a query for a student about a questionnaire she was trying to fill in online. She's profficient in using JAWS (although she's not a huge fan and is looking into trying out Window Eyes), but was having trouble with the drop down menus ("combo boxes" in JAWS speak). So I thought I'd try it out and discovered a few issues:
  1. You need to go into Forms mode in JAWS to access the Combo Boxes (that was my error, not theirs!)
  2. The way the questionnaire was laid out meant when scrolling through it the screenreader read firstly the text of the question, then the question again because it was repeated in the combo box.
  3. Most of the items in the drop down list began with the same letter - D for Dept or F for Faculty or BA in XXX or MA in XXX - not good when you can't see easily and have to listen.
  4. The items again were repeated twice, meaning that a lag could occur. If, when I heard the item read the first time and moved onto the next, it would continue to read the previous item because the text is as I said, repeated twice. Now I can tell if what it's reading to me is not what is on the screen, but the student had to get someone to check and go through it again to make sure she'd picked the right options.
Putting in alt text is only worthwhile if it adds to the information you are giving. I've been reading some interesting blogs on too much accessibility. By far the best is a presentation, with slides and accompanying audio by Patrick Lauke at Salford University. Take 40 minutes and listen to it. It will be worth your while. He talks about coding and mentions amongst other things:
  1. Alt text - being overexplicit and the pitfalls we end up in (like prefixing images with "photograph of") - see also Mike Cherim's Blog on Alt Text
  2. Title attributes - how best to use them - and that you don't need to use "link to:" or repeat information
  3. Default text in forms - that you don't need it because screenreaders can cope with blank fields
  4. Accesskeys - whether or not they are such a good idea (I don't think they are. Along with skip links they are invariably invisible on the page so they can only be used with screenreaders and they often conflict with the keys that technology already uses)
  5. Textsize Widgets - those buttons you can use to increase text size on a page, although you can already use your browser for this function - and to quote Patrick "Text size widgets are evil and Patrick hates them..."
Even if you don't know the coding, it gives you an idea of how assistive technology works in conjunction with online information.

It all reminds me of a mnemonic I use quite a lot: KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid.

Monday, 9 June 2008

All in a Twitter

I've just discovered Twitter. It really is a nifty little thing and quite addictive, although it's rather like the status updates in Facebook which I use more often, and which more of my friends use. Having said that, I'm not going to rule out the obvious advantages this application has for immediacy and ease of access from mobile phones, which at least 90% if not more of the population must have. Before you ask, yes, you can get mobile phones if you're visually impaired (you can also use a mobile for something other than texting or looking up the internet - phones were originally invented to allow voice communications after all). The RNIB has an information sheet on accessible mobile phones which is worth looking at.

So how does Twitter fare with JAWS? Pretty well it has to be said:
  1. It's easy to navigate around, with a simple layout, that shouldn't put anyone off using it.
  2. There is some repetition of words in JAWS, probably owing to information in the alt text field, so that when you go to sign-in it says "Please sign in, please sign in user name edit" and "Please sign in password, password edit". It's good to have the alt text, but the repetition gets a bit annoying. A case of over accessibilitising (if that's a word?)
  3. There are icons you can click on to add tweets to your favourites list as well as delete. These are nice and clear when you look at them on the screen. Rolling the mouse over them also gives nice alt text, but when JAWS reads, all you get is "icon underscore star underscore empty" and "icon underscore trash". Having looked at the underlying source code this is because the title is favourite this update or delete this update while the img_alt is icon_star_empty and icon_trash. I don't know if there's a way to change my JAWS settings to allow it to read the title or if it wouldn't make more sense to change the img_alt to the same as title?
  4. Couldn't seem to input my phone number easily when JAWS was on. It kept telling me that there were no heading 4's on the page when all I wanted to type was +44 to start off my phone number. Is this a JAWS setting issue or the application? I know the navigation quick key for heading 4 is the number 4, but even when I went into Forms mode to add the numbers, it didn't switch off.
All in all, it's nicely set out and simple. Plus there is the added joy that the graphic alt text for the profile pictures is the same as your user name. You can avoid those annoying numbers that appear in Facebook - just as long as you can remember what snazzy name your friends chose...

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Disability in a virtual world

Having been pointed from Brian Kelly's blog to an interesting video on youtube about a mobility impaired Second Life user, I found this news article about a paralysed man walking in second life really fascinating.

Proof that Web 2.0 isn't just about social networking and throwing sheep at your friends in Facebook.

Is disability only an issue in the non-virtual world? About time it wasn't.