Is Accessibility Middleware Really The Equivalent Of Snake Oil?

Sometimes the Internet is likened to the Wild West, it contains exciting unexplored territory, people have freedom to do all kinds of things and rules are not always rigorously applied.

A cowboy on his horse overlooking a valley in Utah

Photo Credit Mark Gunn

One area where this laissez-faire attitude has significant impact is web accessibility.

The impact of poorly written code and technology implemented without adherence to accessibility standards makes it difficult or impossible for users of assistive technology to make use of many of the things that the Internet has to offer.

This is hardly a new problem, web accessibility guidelines have been around for a long time and are well established (WCAG 2.0 is now an ISO standard). There are a multitude of reasons this (some might say excuses); either people are not aware or do not care about standards or are using tools or CMS/publishing platforms that make it impossible to deliver an accessible website or product.

Accessibility is broken for many people despite a lot of hard work.

Broken pane of glass

Photo credit  Jef Poskanzer

Given the explosion in user generated content on the Internet, this problem is not going away any time soon. So what is the best way to enable people to access services and information online when much of the content and the frameworks are not fully accessible?

How can we fix this thing?

There have been a number of articles written recently discussing the pros and cons of using accessibility add-ons or overlays to add features or fix inaccessible code.

Firstly there was Adrian Roselli’s post Be Wary of Add-on Accessibility” followed by Debra Ruh’s article on accessibility overlays in the Huffington Post and then a Karl Groves post in response  with Adrian commenting on both articles in an update of his original post.

Add-On Accessibility

The current state of web & intranet accessibility is poor and the tools that were discussed in Debra’s article were created in response to a general lack of access.

There are multiple different ways of describing add-on accessibility, middleware or overlays:

The first approach

The “separate but equal approach” of creating a second website accessible to assistive technology users. Like Adrian I am surprised that the 21st-century this is still happening given that creating a second site doubles the workload and usually delivers nothing like an equal experience.

The second approach

Provide embedded assistive technology. I have historically been very sceptical of this approach because if you really need assistive technology in order to use a product or service on the web you are going to need it in order to get to the website in the first place.

Embedding assistive technology into your website is like creating an island of accessibility in a sea of inaccessibility.

Island_near_Fiji

A Desert Island Near Fiji (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this, my line on embedded assistive technology has softened somewhat as products have become available that don’t interfere with the assistive technology that many people with disabilities will have on their own computers.

In limited use cases these tools may have functionality that people may have therefore who am I to say not to use them if they do not break web accessibility guidelines.

The third approach – Cures what ails you?

The issue that has been most hotly debated has been over the concept of products aimed at dynamically repairing accessibility issues in websites whilst leaving the underlying code untouched.

Wormer's Famous Rattlesnake Oil advertisement

Source Wikimedia Commons

These middleware tools and their vendors appear to have a reputation in the accessibility industry as being the digital equivalent of snake oil.

Our Choices

Right First Time

Let me be clear from the outset my preference is for planning and delivering user experiences that are accessible from inception, either by making or buying products that meet standards and have been tested to meet people’s differing needs.

The reality is my preference does not match the day-to-day experience of your average browser user be that on the web at large or within companies intranets.

Fix at source / Fix the Source?

Most people are not building their own websites, they have little or no knowledge of the code that lies beneath. Despite what trends would have you believe most people won’t be learning code any time soon, if ever. They will also not have a clue about accessibility standards, that is a fact of life and it’s not going to change any day soon.

If you thought the internet was inaccessible…

Just wait until you get to look at nine out of ten large companies’ intranets. The tools that are used by organisations for many of their core intranet and business functions, portals and ticketing systems are not the sort of thing that can be easily thrown together.

No Entry Sign

Source Wikimedia Commons

They are usually made by big enterprise software companies and most IT departments attempt to deploy as close to out of the box as possible. Despite that there is a complex interplay of hundreds of dependencies; company IT and Security policies and interdependency with other parts of the company ecosystem including legacy IT.  Unfortunately they are usually not paragons of virtue when it comes to inclusive design.

An oft overlooked point is that companies that implement these systems often do not own the source code they are reliant on the vendors.  Once they’ve signed on the dotted line most of their power to influence that vendor evaporates.

Enterprise IT is a complex and often beauraucratic beast projects cost many millions and run for months and years.

Much as we may want to tear it up and start again…

Sometimes you have to admit that even if you do get the go ahead to fix at source the users may not see the benefit for months or even years.

Given the long lead times and complexity of fixing things in corporate environments I can see how middleware that solves the user access issues is attractive and even a valid choice in certain scenarios.

The vendors of these tools should be upfront about the capabilities of their tools and also the level of knowledge, training & intervention required to set them up so that the problems for users are resolved.

Equally people looking to purchase these tools should not expect a magic wand.

Middleware is not snake oil if:

  • It enables users access where they didn’t have it.
  • It expedites access reducing the glacial time-scales of mega-corporate IT.
  • It does not interfere with existing ATs.
  • Implimenting it helps create processes for handling accessibility issues better in future.

So why does it feel like the accessibility industry is circling the wagons?

Wagons in a circle

Photo Credit Don Graham

Partly I think it’s fear of change – people are used to solving a problem in a particular way.  That way is still valid for individual projects but I want to be open minded and embrace the idea that technology just might be better at solving the problem than we currently give it credit for.

I don’t think it’s because people’s income is threatened because there is plenty of broken stuff to keep everyone in the industry working for years to come.

Accept that we cannot fix accessibility piecemeal.

The greatest technology giants of our time know this and that is why they are looking at using their computational power to solve the problems of inaccessible content:

  • Facebook is experimenting with computer generated image descriptions. I don’t know about you but I don’t much feel like retrospectively writing alt text for the worlds face book feeds.
  • Nor do I fancy writing the transcripts to all of youtube’s content in order to produce captions – the 30 minutes per week that we do for #AXSChat is labour intensive enough as it is.  I welcome Youtube’s effort with auto-captions.  They are far from perfect but I do believe that their approach is the right one.

If technology genuinely removes barriers it’s OK in my book.


 

Why not join the #AXSChat conversations that Debra Ruh, Antonio Santos and I host every Tuesday on twitter or catch up with the video interviews that we’ve done with a wide range of people over the last year. www.axschat.com

On fonts and dyslexia

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is around using special fonts for people with dyslexia.

There has been a lot of stuff about dyslexia friendly fonts over the years starting with comic sans, read regular and most recently with open dyslexic and dyslexie. There are various claims made as to their efficacy.

Here are samples of the two most common fonts aimed specifically at dyslexia

Sample of Open DyslexicSample of Dyslexie Font.

They certainly attract a lot of attention in the press and on social media.

I know they are trying to be helpful but I don’t like them or find them helpful.

As a dyslexic person I find myself reacting very negatively to them not just because they are portrayed as a panacea but because they are not to my taste. They are very clunky and unattractive.

On a (screen) tablet,pc or phone I have a preference for well spaced highly legible text on a just off white background as I find that the glare from pure white slows me down.

Other people will have other preferences. This is important.

Allow people to chose – don’t assume that what works for one will work for another.

This study would appear to show that they are not as effective as they claim.
http://www.luzrello.com/Publications_files/assets2013.pdf

Here is a link to Adrian Roselli’s write up from CSUN on research findings presented there.

http://rosel.li/031415

The article below is a good balanced read from a typography point of view.

http://www.commarts.com/Columns.aspx?pub=6950&pageid=1785

It’s commonly accepted amongst the UK dyslexia community that sans serif fonts are preferable on a screen see the British Dyslexia Association pages:
http://bdatech.org/what-technology/typefaces-for-dyslexia/

However layout contrast and font size are at least as important if not more so than the font choice. Configurability and personal preference are therefore key.

Signage fonts generally are designed with legibility and intelligibility in mind and there has been a lot of research into creating good ones. They have to work for people who’s brains are already under significant cognitive load from driving.

The award winning gov.uk uses a signage font “New Transport”
Sample of New Transport

And a personal favourite of mine (including the research) wayfinding sans
http://ilovetypography.com/2012/04/19/the-design-of-a-signage-typeface/

Example of wayfing sans

Digital By Default

This week I spent a day and a half at the National Digital Conference (twitter hashtag #ND13).

It was interesting talking with civil servants, members of the third sector and businesses about their interests and efforts to growing digital engagement with the wider public.

This is part of a strategy called Digital by Default being led by the Government Digital Service (GDS). They put forward some compelling facts and figures on the benefits to individuals and society in general for their approach. They are responsible for the new UK government web site that recently won the Design of the Year Award.

Here are the GDS core principals:

A list of the ten Gov.uk design principles see text below.

1 Start with needs*
2 Do less
3 Design with data
4 Do the hard work to make it simple
5 Iterate. Then iterate again.
6 Build for inclusion
7 Understand context
8 Build digital services, not websites
9 Be consistent, not uniform
10 Make things open: it makes things better

The idea is to make services available primarily via the Internet. The web is the first point of call and the premise is that it will bring benefits for the user

We had some really interesting speakers on a range of topics from Martha Lane Fox, Lord Young, Phillip Blond and Emma Mulqueeny.

The First Major Topic Was Assisted Digital

This is what GDS say about Assisted Digital.

“The Assisted Digital team at GDS is working with departments to develop assisted digital support for digital services. This will give the 18% of UK adults who are offline access to digital by default services”

Read the Cabinet Office Assisted Digital Strategy

Assited Digital is NOT about accessibility the GDS believe that they have that covered in their strategy when they say “build for inclusion”.

And lets remember that digital accessibility only works if the users have the Assistive Technologies to interact with and the knowledge if how to use them.

Some of this Assisted Access of this will mean Digital By Proxy as the “Default” services are accessed on behalf of citizens who cannot access them unaided.

Another core strategy is to teach digital skills to those that currently don’t have them. A large contingent of this group is made up of people with disabilities and the older population. Many of these people are effectively socially excluded. The idea is that they get help right now but they will be encouraged to become more and more digitally independent.

The thing that struck me was that whilst there was a lot of talk about the huge benefits of getting people online, how much money people will save, how it empowers consumers and makes access to government services and information easier and more streamlined but little thought on the other effects it might have.

To me it seems like we are missing a few pieces of the jigsaw:

We don’t routinely provide Assistive Technology to all citizens that need it.
Grant provision for AT whilst excellent in Higher Education and available in the workplace is missing for the wider population on disability benefits.

The Access to Work scheme is a net contributor to the treasury. Other Government schemes such as Motability have given many people much greater independence, so why not have a targeted scheme for access technologies along similar lines.
Without the AT and the skills to use it there’s a lot of wasted effort making stuff accessible.

Furthermore many of those that currently use face to face analogue services now value the human interaction – the visit to the Post Office or Council office might be the only human contact they have. Phillip Blond made an interesting point – isolation and loneliness has a more immediate detrimental effect than smoking.

I applaud much of what the government digital strategy is attempting but I will leave you with these questions:

If all we go digital does it not bring it’s own perils?

Is it not like squeezing a balloon – with actions (the stated benefits) in one direction causing reactions (challenges) in another direction?

Footnote

I’m a naturalised digital citizen – I’m connected all of my waking hours and my digital presence is awake even when I am not. I have many connections and virtual interactions. I can work from anywhere and yet I chose to brave the rush hour crush. Why do I do this?

There is something valuable about proximity and the spontaneity of old fashioned analogue contact. If all our transactions go digital the. We need to find another and better way of engaging with the socially excluded.

Hands squeeze a balloon and it bulges outwards.

Paradigm Shift Futher Discussions

My post “inclusivity requires a paradigm shift” gathered quite a lot of comments and we had some nice discussions on Linkedin groups.  Rather than go round the houses I have collated the discussions here.

Phill Jenkins

“I think GPII.net has some potential, I just wonder what the AT vendors are saying and how the policy makers and grant funders are getting involved?”

Neil Milliken

“Hi Phill, There is at least one AT vendor involved (TextHelp). Hopefully more will get involved as well as people like the guys behind NVDA and other open-source ATs. There is grant funding from the European Union for the Cloud For All elements so it has some momentum – it still needs more and that momentum must be sustained if we are to achieve something great”

Jim Tobias

“Good question, Phill. I think there are already cloud-based AT vendors, and more will join them. Aside from the continuing need for alternative input (like large key keyboards) and output (like Braille printing), the cloud emphasizes the advantages of software solutions over hardware ones. But why should cloud-curious AT vendors adopt GPII as a strategy? The advantages of GPII as a cloud strategy for AT vendors are: easier global marketing, serving diverging platforms (desktop, mobile, kiosks, POS terminals, etc…) without having to develop separate products, and assistance with the enterprise customer (employer, school district, etc., who may want a package of solutions rather than buying a screen reader from vendor X, a communication aid from Vendor Y, and captioning services from vendor Z).”

L. E. Storck

“Keep talking about this here when you have time :-); where are the women involved?”

Phill Jenkins

“Jim and Neil, I think the business model is what really needs to be tested and proven as sustainable. GPII needs vendors X, Y, and Z to really buy in while assuring the end users that their needs will be met. The old business model of a vendor developing, selling AND SERVICING the end user is what made the AT industry. All the advantages of GPii will only succeed when the end users needs are really met. Marketing messages saying it will “just work” are not enough to meet the previous “services” expectations that came along with Neil’s so called “niche” expensive AT solutions. For example, as expensive and one-off as they may have been, custom JAWS scripts did keep a person working and productive – while complaining to a platform owner may take months and an upgrade release to wait for a fix.”

Jim Tobias

“Phill, I absolutely agree — GPII has to stay out of the way of the AT vendors and their customers, because that’s the relationship that makes everything work. I think of it like mall management: provide the building, spaces, escalators, parking, maps, etc., and let the merchants, large and small, do their thing. There’s one area where GPII itself could be of value, and that’s free-and-open-source-software. We’ve all seen dozens of worthy AT projects come and go because they weren’t successfully commercialized or otherwise made sustainable. Users often wound up in a dead end. GPII could do something about that.”

Neil Milliken

“I’m really pleased to have started off some discussion.

I’ll try and address the points made by everyone.

L.E. I cannot really answer why there are not more women involved, in this discussion, AT and indeed IT in general. I know a number of fantastic female professionals in the AT and accessibility field but they are significantly outnumbered. I am open to anyone who wants to make a positive contribution.

Jim & Phill,

I don’t believe that it is the intention of GPII to get in the way of AT vendors and their customers, rather the opposite. The whole rationale for GPII is to provide a mechanism for making AT available to more people on more devices. Gregg Vanderheiden talks about it as being like a transport network which the ATs and the customers use to get where they need to be. The network is not biased towards one type of car, bike or bus etc.

Phill,

With regards to JAWS scripting I understand your argument and the pragmatic results that it brings. The cost of purchasing the license for JAWS is just the tip of the ice-berg. However, I have spent more on JAWS scripting than I have on my house. Scripting a solution to a problem locks you into a cycle of continuous updates to the scripts that do not benefit everyone. It also means that the real culprit – ie the manufacturer of the offending software or the website owner is oblivious to the problems with their product and or service.

Sometime scripts are necessary but I think that Freedom Scientific and their Partners, should be submitting every script created for the potential further development of the product.

I am sure that currently there are many duplications of the scripting work because of the way that scripting does not get back into the product and is effectively outsourced.

Jim – with regards to AT vendors having a direct relationship with their customers I don’t believe that this is necessarily so outside of the vendor’s home nation. Outside of the US lot of AT is supplied by third parties who have no control of the product. Attend a Nuance Dragon Partner Meeting in the UK and you will feel the frustration.

Jim – I really do hope that the GPII will open up the opportunities for more low and no cost options for people. I know from experience that you can create a great product that wins awards but still dies a death because of price and market constraints.”

Martyn Cooper

“I agree with your point and have been making similar headline claims in my own work for decades. However handle with care. The population of people with disabilities is as diverse as any other large sample of the total human population. There is *never* just one thing you can do that makes your product/service accessible to all different people with disabilities. You need to adopt a culture that seeks to address diversity and moves away from one size fits all. If you do this with the motivation of meeting the needs of disabled people you are likely to meet the wide range of users needs and requirements in the general population too!”

Nancy Hays
“Good point, Martyn. I was thinking the same things while reading the article. All of us have different contexts in which services designed for people with disabilities of all different kinds would benefit us not because of our personal diversity, exactly, but because of our diverse situations at any moment. A simple example would be speech-to-text services that could convert a spoken message to a text message to avoid “texting while walking” (driving clearly being too dangerous to consider). The potential ways to leverage accessibility technologies for the wider public might persuade companies to invest in the effort.”

Neil Milliken

“Hi Martyn and Nancy,Thanks for the comments.Martyn I agree that amongst that huge group there are wide variances of need. Absolutely agree when you say that there will never be a one size fits all approach that works. But that is why the GPII is so interesting, it gives the individual flexibility to choose what is right for them and works for them and tries to match it with mainstream technology.This actually fits very well with the trend in business for “mass customisation” where there are base components that a user can choose to make something pretty unique to them. You see this in the auto industry where people can choose from a range of different colours, accessories trims etc.. For any one model of car there may be anything like 500 variations.Nancy – I have been saying for a decade now that my favourite assistive technologies for helping me with my dyslexia are Microsoft Outlook which helps me organise myself and Dragon Naturally Speaking – both were designed and marketed as productivity tools.It is only 10 years later that speech recognition is becoming mainstream and being included on your mobile phone as standard!”

Accessibility: Let’s put away the wrecking ball!

Levelling the playing field is a good thing

If you are reading this post you will probably think that accessibility is critically important.

You will know & understand the rationale behind it.

You will most likely either be in the accessibility “industry” or a user of Assistive Technology.

It is likely that you will be frustrated by the constant challenges that you face in accessing products and services or working with people to make their products and services accessible.

I know that in my job I face these challenges too on a daily basis.

Often it can feel that it is one step forwards and two steps back.  Just when you think that you have something that works, technology changes, legislation changes or management decide on a new direction and the baby gets thrown away with the bath water.

Baby thrown away with the bathwaterI work in a huge IT organisation and one of our major clients actually has adherence to their accessibility guidelines built into our contract so that any product or service we deliver to them must be accessible, not just websites anything that has a user interface.

So not only do I have the law on my side in my role I have the power to enforce compliance and if necessary stop multi million pound projects in their tracks if they cannot be used in conjunction with Assistive Technology.  I can almost hear some of you thinking he’s got it easy…

But despite making progress and working hard there is still much that concerns me about accessibility, both in my organisation and in the wider world.

So why does it still not work?

It is undoubtedly frustrating but I believe we need to take a step back and see how outsiders view accessibility.

Demolition in progress sign

I honestly believe that this picture represents how a lot of people in the IT industry view a meeting with the “accessibility guy”.  I’m not joking when I say project directors have run away from me with a fearful guilty glance over their shoulder.

In some cases they know that they’ve swept accessibility under the carpet or ignored it all together and that their project has a deadline they need to meet.  A meeting with the accessibility guy at this stage will delay their project upset the client (yes the same client that says they want everything accessible) and cost money.

Others are ignorant of their obligations so our first meeting can come as a nasty shock as the implications sink in for what implementing accessibility means for their project or service this late in the game.

Lets not turn accessibility discussions into a jousting match

Two Knoights Jousting

Karl Groves of Deque Systems posted on the need for a new approach to accessibility a subject first raised by Jared W Smith who talked of the need for a new accessibility game plan.  You can read Karl’s post on his blog.

I agree with most of what he said about how the accessibility community is viewed by web developers as whining zealots stopping them from implementing cool new ideas.

Accessibility has become a bit of a dirty word.

We are partly to blame.

We have felt the need to fight our corner and have fought tenaciously.

The problem is sometimes we shoot indiscriminately and do more harm than good.

We also frequently fight amongst ourselves.

We have developed a plethora of standards.

Whilst they are necessary there are possibly too many, they often conflict and sometimes they confuse the hell out of me let alone a lay person.

I have been working with and using Assistive Technology for over a decade and I know enough to know that there is always more to learn.  We need to have some sympathy for those who are willing to work with us and to provide them with practical ways and suggestions to work with these guidelines and just as importantly choose the appropriate ones.

Furthermore standards tend to lag behind technology developments so we spend far too much time in conferences arguing about the fine details whilst the world moves on.

We have launched class action lawsuits against major corporations and won.

Let me be clear that there is a place for legal action, it is sometime necessary as a weapon of last resort.

But class action lawsuits not only breed resentment they can also skew the view of what constitutes accessibility.  Large, well funded organisations such as the NFB can afford the lawyers more readily than other disability groups and this can lead to misconceptions, such as thinking that just because it works for one group or with one piece of Assistive Technology it is accessible.  Different people have different needs and they can and frequently do conflict.

We have bullied and cajoled people into accepting that people with disabilities should have access one website at a time.

But we can’t keep up with the volume of stuff that’s out there.

We cannot fix it all ourselves.

We need to find another way to achieve our goals

We need to stop fighting and start talking.

And not just amongst ourselves.

Stop telling people they are failing and talk to them about how we can work together to make better products for everyone.

Words like compliance, fail, class action, discrimination and legislation are turn-offs.

Talk in the language of business to the ones that own the big businesses

Go to the top and show the key people how they can make great products accessible and PROFITABLE.

Pile of Dallar bills

Demonstrate that the costs of doing this need not be excessive and can pay dividends in terms of usability, productivity, customer loyalty.

Present them with evidence that they can engage and delight their customers by working with us.

Graph showing how early implimentation of accessiblity pays off

Show them that they are missing out on an opportunity to engage with a large and growing customer base.

Give them facts and figures on the spending power and demographic trends around disability and ageing.

Credit card

This may not be easy but the pay off of engaging with top executives can be far greater as they can change the culture of their organisations.

Engage with thought leaders

As well as people from business we need to be engaging the people who are shaping our future, go outside of our cosy circle and get them interested in a two way conversation. The people who are building the next generation of technologies may not be aware of what they need to do to make their products accessible. We won’t know who they are but by engaging with thought leaders and getting their buy in we have a much better chance of influencing them.

We can also learn about what trends will be important and work with them to ensure inclusion.

Most people develop new technology with the intent of making our lives easier and better  so we should present the arguments that accessibility and Assistive Technology is just a natural extension of this.

We should not be afraid to appropriate new technologies to our needs.

Twitter is a great place for this kind of discussion.  It is a great back door to big corporations and busy people.

Accentuate the positive

We must demonstrate that accessible products can be great and fun products that everyone wants to use.

We need to be less “worthy” and more fun – make our products attractive to a wider audience, changing Accessible Twitter to “Easy Chirp” is one example of making an accessible product more attractive to a broad audience.

Before pointing out the bits that aren’t accessible on a website or in a product home in on the bits that are.

May your glass always be half full

Be prepared to compromise.

We are in this for the long haul and need to build relationships so being prepared to compromise on small issues is necessary.  If something is 80% accessible that is a great start so long as the remaining 20% doesn’t represent the core function of the product or website.

Sometimes we behave like accessibility is a religion, if that is the case I think we need to careful not to behave like the Spanish Inquisition.

Work to educate.

As Karl Groves mentioned people don’t often set out to deliberately make their products inaccessible it usually comes about through ignorance.

I am not a coder but I will and do provide code examples to those that do – my thanks as always go to those who generously provide this people like Yahoo Access and Dennis Lembree.

I also make sure that I bend over backwards to provide training and awareness sessions to all that ask for it.

We could do with making people more aware that they don’t have to comb through their code line by line, so lets give people the tools they need to build accessible products and websites, a lot of them are out there already.

Show them Assistive Technology – blow them away with how great it is. Most people I demonstrate to are amazed when they see products like JAWS and Dragon for the first time.  Demonstrate how some of it could make their lives easier too. Get them using it and you’ll have a convert to the cause. Even better they’ll have the awareness and the tools to implement accessibility themselves in future.

We also need to harmonise and cross reference standards as well as make them decipherable  – My colleague Klaus-Peter Wegge talked with me about creating a “cook book” with easy to follow recipes and tips.

Noticeably despite having input to many of the world standards on accessibility he tends not to use the word often preferring the terms Universal Design and Design for All.

Let’s embrace the wider world:

People embracing with a "free hugs" sign