“Smart design removes barriers”

Phone 714.968.0636 - Email tom [at] tomjewett [dot] com

the Editorial page…

…in which I'll indulge occasional musings, dim light bulbs flashing in my head, event reportage, colleagues' thoughts (identified), or Q&A. Not as predictable or interactive as most blogs, not instantaneous like Twitter or an RSS feed, not as hip as YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook, and the rest—but I'll still try to provide enough content of possible interest to earn a link or a repeat visit from time to time.


More relevant than ever

Here's a case study to suggest that accessible design might have been “ahead of its time” all along.

Over ten years ago, I set up my own domain name and simple Web site. Beginning to study accessibility, I wanted to apply those principles to my own work. The first demonstration was my biography page, which contained a single changing left-column photo to illustrate each historical item in the right column.

At the time, JavaScript mouseover effects had become popular. So a “mouseover” event on each photo link was an obvious way to change images. But what if the reader couldn't use a mouse? Add an “onfocus” event to make the Tab key do the same thing. But what if even that didn't work? Or maybe JavaScript wasn't available? Well, just make the basic link (<a href="…">) reload the page with the new image. I can imagine developers from that time protesting how much extra work this was, just for a few people who couldn't use a mouse!

That was then, this is now. Who can't use a mouse (or a tab key)? Anybody with a smart phone or tablet! My ancient page is still there, updated in content but unmodified in operation—still usable and accessible with the latest devices. Check it out.

New help for low-vision readers

Low vision, by definition, cannot be solved medically. Currently, web browsers and e-book readers offer text enlargement and perhaps a few variations in font or colors. Unfortunately, this is not enough to provide a comfortable environment for many low vision readers.

Wayne Dick, with colleagues Alvaro Monge and Darnell Gadberry, presented a much more versatile system at the recent CSUN International Conference on Technology and Disabilities. Called “typometrics,” their software is capable of generating what is essentially a personalized “prescription” to meet the reading needs of each individual. Besides the text size, users can set dozens of parameters such as character, line, and word spacing, and can refine the colors of each page element exactly to their preferences.

Previous research in the area has mostly focused on speed of reading; this work emphasizes instead how long a low-vision person can read without experiencing discomfort. The software is still in development; I'll post updates as they become available. In the meantime, please contact Wayne directly for more information: wayneedick [at] gmail [dot] com.

Do conferences have a future?

I've been thinking about this since my presentation last month at the HCI International conference in San Diego. HCII is quite large by academic standards—over 1300 papers in three days of parallel sessions, preceeded by two days of tutorials. Held in a commercial resort/convention center, it's expensive, too—and yes, even invited presenters pay the registration fee.

My talk was one of seven in a two-hour session; in a room that would have held 150, we had fewer attendees than speakers. Maybe our topics really were that boring, but other sessions seemed to be just as deserted, as did the registration lobby and even the Internet lounge. I have no idea if the conference organizers made or lost money; in either event, this does not seem to be an effective way to disseminate research findings or to build academic tenure and promotion resumés.

An even bigger worry to me is the CalWAC series of accessibility training conferences, which rely on attendance fees for revenue (instructors are paid). Also unlike HCII, the venue is provided by one of the Cal State campuses (Long Beach for the past three years), and the campus picks up many of the local costs. This year, State funding is simply not available either for hosting or for sponsoring attendees.

I'd love to just say, “put everything on the Web.” But frankly, none of the so-called conferencing software I've used is up to the task yet. Nor could this (yet) replace my informal discussions with colleagues at HCII or the chance to make new contacts at CalWAC. Where's that Star Trek holodeck when we need it?

Wayne's Law of accessibility

“If a Web site meets the Level A success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0, it meets the legal requirements of U.S. Section 508.”

Wayne Dick, with his mathematician's precision, spent a lot of time developing the complete functional mapping to prove his point. I've contributed some small examples of how this works in practice, and assembled a set of recommended WCAG 2 “sufficient techniques” that developers can use to meet 508. We've presented these ideas a number of times, most recently at the CSUN conference in Los Angeles (with several of the WCAG 2 authors in attendance!). Skeptics with perseverance can refer to my techniques list (on tomjewett.com). If these terms are unfamiliar, see the jargon page on this site.

It's time to move forward.

The beauty of WCAG 2 is that it tells developers why they are doing something (it has to be perceivable), what has to be done (provide text alternatives for any non-text content), and how to do it (using alt attributes on img elements). Moving forward, for me, means developing this simple explanation into a tutorial or workshop that will highlight the most important whys and whats and show developers how they can attain compliance easily and confidently by using the techniques. You'll read about it here first.

Accessibility and usability

The twin Web accessibility training conferences—CalWAC (California) and John Slatin Access U (Austin, TX)—have recently offered specific tracks for developers, content providers, and administrators. For this May's Access U, Sharron Rush (conference Director, Knowbility Inc.) had the inspiration to add a track for usability professionals. This track was well attended; many participants were from UT or State agencies and at least two even came in from California.

I was privileged to have one of my sessions included in the usability track. (See smart analysis on this site.) Having taught user-interface courses at both CSU Long Beach and UC Irvine, I was able to explain that my techniques are simply another form of heuristic evaluation that can be incorporated into any usability testing protocol. The message seemed to resonate well with this group, perhaps out of relief to find that accessibility doesn't need to be as complicated or daunting as it might have seemed.

Yes, I've heard Web developers say something like: “Section 508 doesn't say anything about usability, so I don't have to worry about it.” Enough to tear my hair, if I had any left! Conversely, usability specialists may often be busy enough that accessibility has not yet become part of their repetoire. Since I've never been very keen about turf battles and position titles, I've always contended that if it's not accessible, it's not usable— and if it's not usable it for sure isn't accessible! The takeaway for me is that the more opportunities we have (like Access U) to get the two areas of expertise talking to each other, the merrier (and more effective) we'll all be. Thanks, Sharron.