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.

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