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I recently compiled an accessibility report for a corporate website. I’m sure anyone reading this who is at all interested in digital accessibility is used to seeing it nailed on to a project after the event rather than integrated into the whole process, even from large organisations that should really know better.

However, what surprised me was how thoroughly everything on this site checked out. The HTML validated with no errors; the design was nice and clean, with good contrast; they had even followed best practice in terms of intelligent presentation of skip links, something that even the best sites sometimes fall down on. In short, I was impressed. Care and intelligence had been exercised in ensuring the site could be made as accessible as possible.

Then I turned my attention to the content.

Oh dear.

The editorial content was well written, managing to make potentially dry subject matter engaging and authoritative. Unfortunately, the way it was implemented didn’t just dent the accessibility rating, it managed to completely destroy it.  For example:

  • alt text was present, but it was used to hold image copyright data
  • hub pages held half a dozen article extracts, all followed with links that simply said ‘more information’
  • some links downloaded PDFs but looked just like normal page links
  • embedded flash video started automatically, with no on-screen controls or transcripts

and so on.

I’m not going to hammer website editors in this post. I actually had a lot of sympathy for the organisation in question, and said so in my report. Fixing these problems wouldn’t  incur any expense beyond staff time, and could be reasonably prioritised. So why did it happen? What caused such a potentially excellent site to fail so catastrophically? It was the perfect example of something I’ve been considering a lot recently: the insidious development of exclusive accessibility.

How does accessibility become exclusive?

The reason this happens should be plain to anyone who has spent time ploughing through any of the W3C WAI guidance.  They give the impression of having been written by technical staff for technical staff. And when you are considering areas like developing accessible browsers, such an approach is appropriate and reasonable.  But not all the guidance is aimed at technical staff. It includes information it is essential for everyone involved in website production to know, with material that is relevant to project managers, to website managers and to content producers.

It is this last group that I think is so often overlooked and where the most damage is done, certainly in the site I was evaluting. With the widespread use of content management systems and the credo that ‘content is king’, it has been some time since the people actually writing need to have much technical knowledge: in fact, to reach the widest audience, it may be preferable that they have very little at all. Yet the guidelines are written in such a way to put off anyone without this very knowledge.

Pity the editor

Let’s take an example. A content editor wants to know how WCAG 2.0 is relevant to their job. Let’s ignore the fact that the first thing you get to is an abstract followed by a jargon-laden statement about the document status: I’m assuming there are good legal reasons that these need to be here.

The content editor scans down the menu until they get to an area that seems relevant. Let’s try 3.1: ‘Make content readable and understandable’. Click on the link and the first two guidelines are unambiguously technical in nature. But then the editor gets to

3.1.5 When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available. (Level AAA)

This strikes a chord, since they already know about writing to age-appropriate levels. But click on ‘how to meet 3.1.5′ and they are back in the realm of technical papers. There is useful (albeit dry) guidance for editors in there (e.g. “Us[e] sentences that do not contain complex words or phrases that could be replaced with more commonly used words without changing the meaning of the sentence”) but it is sandwiched between comments about correctly using RDF and ISO AfA.

In fairness, the ‘Understanding 3.1.5′ supplementary document is much more relevant and useful to the general editor, but the supplementary information cannot be compiled and customised in the same way as the ‘how to meet…’ information, so the inquisitive editor is left with a lot of work to do themselves.

Inclusive understanding

So what is the solution?

There are three main audiences that I feel need to be targeted about the danger of exclusive accessibility.

  1. Senior managers. The people responsible for commissioning digital resources do not need to be experts, but they do need to understand how accessibility works. The senior manager may feel that this is unnecessary, but it is the responsibility of the digital communications manager to ensure this happens. It can be as simple as a ten minute chat explaining the ongoing nature of digital maintenance. Without this basic overview accessibility is all to easily reduced to a one-off check-list.
  2. Content editors. Of all the introduction to accessibility courses I have been involved in, very few purely editorial or general communications staff have attended. Instead organisations tend to send or self-select the technical staff, which can lead to a sense of preaching to the converted.  They are not inclusive.
  3. Accessibility professionals. The irony of the previous point isn’t lost on me. Courses tend to be run by (what are perceived to be) technical agencies, so the use of even the most basic jargon in the course publicity can indicate to people that the course is Not For Them. There needs to be a continuing attempt to promote inclusion across basic digital accessibility courses. Where is the ‘Digital accessibility for writers’ courses? Why doesn’t W3C produce a separate supplement specifically aimed at non-technical staff involved in digital communications? Or even allow WCAG to be browsed along ‘technical’ and ‘editorial’ criteria?

I think increasing understanding of accessibility presents some of the most pressing challenges in developing truly accessible digital technology. It’s important, but it cannot be delivered simply by specialists.  It’s the responsibility of everyone involved in digital development to promote and sell accessibility. Without it accessibility will grow ever more exclusive.

But what do you think?


Do you really need to know HTML nowadays?

I’ve been following a recent discussion on whether you really need any technical skills at all to maintain a website if your content management system (CMS) is up to scratch. It started with a community member mentioning they had just taken over a new site and whether they should learn some HTML or CSS.

I was somewhat surprised that the overwhelming consensus from the group was that you should leave the technical stuff to the experts (i.e. external contractors) and simply concentrate on developing and writing good, optimised content, learning simply to cut and paste embed code from YouTube or Flickr when you need it. You don’t need to know how to strip an engine down just to be able to drive from Bournemouth to Aberdeen.

Whilst this is true, I’d argue that you also don’t want to have to call out the AA whenever you need to top up your radiator.

You are not a robot

I started working on websites ten years ago, with no skills other than an enthusiasm for all things digital and an eagerness to learn, so the original poster was a position I could empathise with. Without a basic foundation in HTML, I’m not sure I’d have floundered, but things would certainly have taken longer to sink in.

In particular, I’d have learned the ‘how’ of website maintenance (‘to apply an <h2>, click here’) simply though using the CMS, but not the ‘why’ (‘Why do I need to apply <h2> here? It’s easier just to make it bold.’).

You don’t need to be an expert on coding, since the CMS will do all the work for you. However, if you have any desire to produce an accessible, compliant and visible site—in effect, to be a true website manager—simply following a list of instructions will not get you there. You need to know why are doing what you are doing. And at a time when budgets are tight, you don’t want to be so mystified by the backend process that you are ringing up your outsourced technical agency every time you are struggling to wrap a some text around an image.

A good introductory course will also stop you making sites that will prevent a good portion of your audience from using it. Many CMSs will, for good reason, let you insert tables into your page. Even if you are already aware that tables are something to be Treated With Caution, a good foundation course will help you explain to your Head of Communications why its worth paying a couple of hundred pounds to get the stylesheet updated rather than simply setting up a two column layout with that handy tables button. You don’t want to spend good money marketing your site to the world only to have those, say, using screenreaders blocked from using it once they get there.

Where to start

So what would I suggest is an appropriate foundation for the newbie, non-technical website manager?

Firstly, a beginners (usually 2-day) course on HTML and CSS is a must. Then I’d leave it for a couple of months while it all sinks in. It’s also worth getting into the habit of looking at the source code of any sites you like: it’s amazing how quickly it’ll all start to make sense.

After that, I’d look at some sort of dedicated ‘introduction to accessibility’ course. I’ve always found these really fun, not particularly techie, and really help you understand why standards and accessibility is important right now (hint: it’s not just for the benefit of disabled people). You should come out of it knowing about standards like WCAG 1.0 and 2.0 as well as having an awareness of newer standards like BS8878.

Next, I’d recommend doing an introductory Photoshop course, and convince your organisation it’s a worthwhile investment if they don’t use it already. Images can still be problematic online, particularly if your CMS let you upload a 5MB, 600 dpi image unchallenged. You’ll find out about ideal resolutions, the difference between jpegs, gifs and pngs, and how to optimise for the web. Your CMS may well do this for you, but once you know what you’re doing it’s often quicker to do it yourself. You also have control over the compression: personally, I’d rarely trust a CMS to do it properly.

Once you’ve done all that, and if you are still keen, it may be worth looking into a basic course on server management, server-side scripting and databases (e.g. PHP and MySQL). You really need to be comfortable with how sites work before you do one of those, so I’d leave it at least six months, ideally a year, before you even start considering it. You won’t come out of it an expert coder, but you should be able to talk to your contractors sensibly, and (more importantly) recognise if they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Not that they would ever do that, of course.

Being a digital ninja

By the time you have worked through all those, you won’t be a digital ninja, but you will certainly have the foundations to enable you to be one. And more importantly, you have the ability and confidence to know that your site has the framework it needs to let your content really shine. All these initially baffling rules will soon become second nature (I promise) and in time will help you shape and develop your site, whether it is an image library, information and advice, or a community into a truly professional resource.

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