The paradox of web accessibility is that learning how to achieve it is not very accessible!
The problem is figuring out where to start. While there are a number of obviously relevant standards and examples available online, it was hard for me, as an accessibility novice, to sort through these guidelines to help our development team construct a set of concrete tasks that would return the greatest accessibility improvement for the least effort.
As it turned out, the thing I needed in order to understand how to prioritize our efforts, was to spend a day and a half sharing our upcoming release of JasperServer with a customer and that customer’s accessibility consultant. The results of this experience were both humbling and encouraging. The humbling part was the discovery that in its current state our brand new interface framework was not very accessible. The encouraging part was that with just a few hours work, once I knew what to do, I was able to use the systematic nature of our new system to make significant accessibility improvements.
The key to all this, of course, was the opportunity to work with experts in a real-world setting, and to be able to make changes and test them in real-time. While there will be no substitute for this experience, I’ve distilled my learnings into the following list, which I hope could be helpful to any web designer trying to understand how to begin improving the accessibility of his application.
Comply with Keyboard Standards
Users of screen reader software do not ever use a mouse for two reasons. First, they drive the screen reader software through keyboard commands so leaving the keyboard is awkward. Second, the rapid movement of the mouse tends to overwhelm the screen reader software which cannot keep up with the rapid change in input focus. While JAWS (a popular commercial screen reader) does have a ‘virtual’ mouse that permits a user to simulate a mouse click via the keyboard when nothing else will work, this cannot be relied upon because it is not part of any general standard. As a result, in order to be accessible, all required user events must have keyboard equivalents. In addition, these keyboard equivalents should meet the standard expectation (e.g. return key follows a hyperlink) to make them most useful and intuitive.
The key point here is that by using the screen reader experience as the baseline design context, we will also achieve accessibility for the larger community of users who are sighted but must, or prefer to, use a keyboard and not a mouse.
The ARIA standard (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is being widely adopted by the accessibility community. We tested ARIA markup with two screen readers, JAWS and NVDA (an open source screen reader) and found that both were well along in supporting the ARIA standard by providing appropriate context-specific instructions when encountering ARIA markup.
In general, adding ARIA markup is very low risk as it takes the form of element attributes that have no direct effect on rendering or behavior. Some of the attributes—particularly those targeted at improving orientation (ARIA ‘landmarks’)—improve accessibility instantly. Other attributes, such as those associated with what ARIA terms as ‘widgets’ can’t be added until supporting interactive scripting is also added because these attributes cause the screen reader to announce behaviors that must be supported with custom scripting.
Adding heading tags to the markup was a simple and effective method for improving a screen reader user’s ability to navigate pages. We also learned that it was not a problem for the headings and the ARIA landmarks to provide essentially redundant information. Screen reader users have the ability to navigate by heading or by landmark, often switch between the approaches depending upon what appears to be working best and don’t have a problem sorting out any redundancy.
Provide Non-Visual Feedback
It is common now in web applications for a user event to trigger an update to only part of a page. While this change is generally obvious to a sighted user, it is completely hidden from a blind user. There are ARIA standards for dealing with this exact issue by triggering alerts that will be spoken by screen readers. These attributes must be added to any scripting that dynamically updates pages, or generates error messages and alerts.
Web applications can be written to assign HREFs to anchor tags dynamically. Unfortunately, anchor tags without HREF attributes are not recognized by screen readers. This limitation can be addressed by adding empty or dummy HREF attributes to anchor tags but the implementation must be tested in all target browsers as there is inconsistency in how browsers treat the placeholder HREF attributes.
Develop Internal Best Practices for Accessibility
One cannot create an accessible application overnight. It will happen over time as long as an organization has a development culture in which accessibility is given priority. This can be helped along with simple tactical steps such as ‘Accessibility Checklist’ for developers and more strategic ones such as requiring that QA personnel, designers and developers build up a comfort level with using screen readers for testing prototypes and production code. In order for this to happen along with other priorities the best approach will be to establish that accessibility is neither an afterthought nor a special case, but part of creating semantically sound markup that benefits all users.
Work with an Accessibility Consultant
To achieve more than perfunctory accessibility compliance it is crucial to develop an ongoing relationship with an Accessibility consultant. There are several reasons for this. First, building a culture where accessibility is a core value requires that development personnel meet and observe individuals who rely on assistive technologies. Second, while QA tests can be created to validate standards compliance, observing real disabled users is the only way to know if an application has achieved real world accessibility. Third, as standards and assistive technologies are still in a significant state of flux, any organization, but particularly one where the understanding of how to implement accessibility is immature, will benefit from advice and guidance from an expert source.
The reality of accessibility is that it is no different from usability or simplicity or any other system characteristic: it can only be achieved by making it an ongoing and central priority.
While this might sound as if accessibility will then compete with other priorities, in fact improving accessibility helps to advance the quality of the user experiences for all client applications. In essence, accessibility is about delivering markup to assistive technologies that is appropriate for those technologies. Seen in this light, there is little difference between designing for accessibility and designing for mobile or any other experience. In all cases what needs to happen is that the application server delivers to each interface client code appropriate to its particular capabilities. As there is no doubt that support for a diversity of devices is the future for all software applications, all that needs to be done to improve accessibility compliance is to always consider assistive technologies in the mix of supported devices.