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

Interesting Yet Inaccessible: To Share Or Not To Share?

Image

My Dilemma

Today I got called out on twitter by David MacDonald – a fellow accessibility professional for reposting a tweet by Jared Spool which contained an image of text.

I frequently get faced with a dilemma when someone posts content that is not accessible yet I find interesting and worthy of sharing.

David MacDonald calls out Neil for retweeting an image of text posted by Jared SpoolDo I share?

When I make content I strive for it to be accessible but a lot of stuff on social media is not created by me but I may think people would like to know about it.

Do I never share?

That would stop me from sharing a lot of interesting stuff on principle. But what little content I did would be fully accessible.  Maybe if you consider social media to only contain ephemera then this should be your course of action.

Do I fix other people’s content?

In this case I have fixed someone else’s content.

However it’s taken me much more time than the collective effort of all the people who created the original content and responded to it so is not realistic on every occasion:

What about when the medium is innately inaccessible?

Twitter is a short form medium. I wish that it provided the opportunity to create alt text inbuilt. I wish that the default mobile clients supported these features – they don’t yet. As a consequence sometimes I share stuff that is not accessible.

The Text In The Offending Image:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” — Neil Gaiman

Design choice is more than just about taste. It’s an accessibility issue.

This post was written as my contribution to Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

You can find out more from the GAAD website or searching the #GAAD hashtag.

The Day Job

I spend a lot of time dealing with the technicalities of making stuff work with Assistive Technology (AT). If I’m honest even more time in meetings dealing with the organisational politics surrounding it and giving talks on the technicalities whys and wherefores of making stuff work with screen readers, magnifiers and other ATs like Dragon and Texthelp. This is probably pretty familiar stuff to many of my readers and colleagues. It’s recognisably accessibility work and it’s work that I am proud to do.

The Second Job

However, recently I have been spending some spare time as a contributor to the Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce for W3C and this has caused me to reflect on my own needs and preferences for using technology. I’ve long been passionate about UX and usability and talked about the overlap between the disciplines but I’m currently reading a lot on cognitive load.

I have dyslexia and whilst I do make use of AT it isn’t my main way of interacting with technology. Often I am just using a smartphone tablet or laptop and interacting with apps and websites.

Poor working memory and difficulties with sequencing play a significant role in making life challenging. Both individually and collectively they reduce my ability to deal with and make sense of information – cognitive load – or in my case overload.

Up until about 18 months ago I was a pretty happy guy.

I liked my apps I loved my iPhone, iPad and my Nexus and Windows 7 felt comfortable and familiar.

Metro changed everything.

The new Microsoft UI that debuted with Windows phone 7 was certainly different. I wanted to like it but the more I used it the more I hated it. From the day glow tiles and unfinished words running off the screen to the flatness of it. It was just plain hard to use, downright confusing. I avoid using windows 8 touch screen UI for the same reasons.

iOS7 makes me want to cry.

It may well be the most accessible mobile OS in terms of inbuilt AT but it is a real step backwards for users with cognitive difficulties such as dyslexia.

Johnny Ive won his battle against the skeuomorphs and the resulting iOS 7 is flat skinny and by turns blinding glaring white with poor contrast and skinny fonts. The UI is confusing – and frequently pulls the rug from underneath you. You may have been bored with “lickable buttons” book binders and leather textures but at least I could make out when something was a button or required action.

Studies have shown that iOS7 places a higher cognitive load on users than it’s predecessor. I make more mistakes, recover from them more slowly and feel tired from the stress of the extra effort of using it.

7.1 has added the ability to reduce the glare and make the buttons more obvious, it’s an improvement but I still find it easier to use the unfashionable iOS6.

The App ecosystem exacerbates and amplifies the problem.

App developers and web designers are also following the trend so that their products have a consistent look and feel. Everywhere I look is going flat and skinny and my heart sinks every time I see an update.

I am not saying all flat design is bad.

Great flat design can be simple clean and satisfying to use but a lot of flat design feels abusive to me as a user and who wants to use an app or service that makes you feel stupid?

Look back to the POUR principles of WCAG 2.0

The POUR Principles are: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust . The W3C explain the principles here
If I can’t make out whether something is a button or cannot read stuff I can’t operate it as intended.

My plea.

Please do the stuff to make your product accessible to ATs and then think about the cognitive load you are placing on your users when you choose colour schemes and icon sets – what you think of of as the design is for me and millions of others like me an accessibility issue. If you really want to go with a certain look and feel – make it the default and offer user the option to customise it to meet their needs.

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.

Tribal warfare

John’s Nice Idea

Long standing accessibility advocate John Foliot often refers to people working in the accessibility world as members of the Tribe – itinerant, dispersed and yet connected with some commonality of purpose. John has a very positive outlook and it is one that I admire; he advocates finding solutions rather than pointing out problems, being a fireman taking action to prevent fires rather than a policeman arresting villains…

I admire all of this and subscribe wholeheartedly to this approach.

But it is not reflective of the reality in which we currently live and work.

What we actually have is a load of different tribes

Rather than harmony we have tribal warfare.

Tribes at warLet me give some context to my comments:

I recently attended a meeting of the eAccessibility forum at the Department for Culture Media And Sport (DCMS). It was intended as an opportunity to contribute to future legislation and policy to further digital inclusion for people with disabilities.

The session to explore the challenges and opportunities for accessibility presented by the rapidly changing technology landscape and to share ideas and potential solutions quickly fell apart.

One of the keynote speakers was harangued for being too personal despite advocating a broad brush pan disability approach.  She was advocating a rational, realistic and inclusive approach to the issues at hand.

The first person to stand up and criticise professed to have broadly the same aims as the speaker but attacked all the same only to get a smattering of applause.

For nearly two hours most of what I saw was people pushing their own personal agendas, complaining about this or that failing. Bemoaning that access was not 100% perfect. Wilfully misunderstanding and dismissing or ignoring each other.

It was like listening to a room full of broken records. The voices of the rational and reasonable (yes there were some there) drowned out in the clamouring.

Fragments of broken records

What happened to the concept of doing things for the greater good?

Or contributing for the benefit of all?

There was a fundamental lack of respect in the room which saddened me. Not from everyone but from enough to make the meeting unworkable as a useful forum.

Instead of thinking about the digital landscape in 5, 10 and 20 years time and what benefit we might bring to all people were fixated with their pet topics or asking for the impossible.

The one good idea of the whole event was tax breaks for accessibility.

This has some potential as a carrot to encourage businesses to do more.  We have the legislative sticks but businesses always look at the bottom line and incentives can and do make a difference.

He Who Shouts Loudest

After the event I sat mulling things over as to why people had behaved in such a way.  It occurred to me that this behaviour was not natural but had been adopted and learned.

Man with a megaphone

Advocates from disability groups had seen people have a measure of success by being vocal and forceful. So they assumed that this was the most effective approach to break down the barricades.

What this approach fails to recognise is that the war is over.

There may still be a lot to do but there is legislation in place and we were sitting in a government building being consulted and this is how people behaved…

It is no wonder legislators and companies shy away from us if we behave like terrorists.  Even the IRA recognised that the best way forward was to negotiate and compromise. Now one of their former number is the Second Minister in Northern Ireland.  They may not have everything they want yet and they may never but working peacefully and collaboratively has achieved more than all of the bombing.

What works for one group of users may not for another, the needs of businesses to pay their owners and staff and governments to run their countries mean that there will be no accessibility promised land.

100% accessibility of 100% of the web and Media for 100% of all the disability groups is a pipe dream but…

We can still make things a lot better

This is why we need to lay down the megaphones we use as weapons and start thinking about a pragmatic inclusive approach to technology and accessibility.  Think about what the challenges are for business and align with them to achieve far more for a wider group of people than ever before.

Each Year I Spend A little Less Time At BETT

For the best part of a decade the coming of a new year meant only one thing work wise: the BETT trade show for education technology.

It was by far the most significant marketing event in the company’s year and you could be guaranteed to find all of the major players in assistive technologies gathered at the show. It marked an opportunity to catch up with industry colleagues, have meetings with people that you had been meaning to have since last BETT and a chance to gossip and size up the competition. Not only that but you would also be able to find all sorts of exciting gadgets and interesting ideas for making education more engaging and fun.

Or at least it used to be like that. Certainly during the last couple of years of working at iansyst Ltd we were questioning the value of spending such a large slice of our yearly budget on this one show. Building stands and coordinating marketing materials, personnel and the attendant travel and hotels all costs significant amounts of money. It is very difficult to track whether or not the investment in such trade shows is really worthwhile. But the Assistive Technology industry keeps coming back year after year.

This January was the second time that I had attended BETT as a visitor and not as an exhibitor. I had made two short visits the previous January to catch up with former colleagues and has a nose around to see what was new. The relief of not having to man the stand was palpable, I could freely wander around and do my business as I chose.

However this year I spent a total of 2 1/2 hours at the biggest education technology show in the world. In fact I probably spent half an hour too long.

Why is that?

Aside from catching up with colleagues there was very little innovation on show. Yes there were new versions of most of the familiar assistive technology software, yes Microsoft and all the big technology players had flashy stands and Google was notable for the increased presence but there was very little of interest.

Most of my colleagues were too flustered or tired to be able to have a sensible conversation, and finding somewhere comfortable to have that conversation was nigh on impossible. The real innovation is elsewhere, if you want to understand what really ignites interest in young learners and what the really important technology trends are you should not be going to BETT.

Why not check out events that really focus on innovation and engagement in the technologies that will be shaping our lives in the coming decades? Next year I have resolved not to go to BETT and spend the time at more focused events like Learning without Frontiers and the fantastic mobile conference run every November by Tomi Ahonen and Ajit Joakar.

The BETT show like the CES show in America has seen its glory days in years gone by, whilst these shows are still very large they are growing less significant year by year. CES used to be the most important trade show in the electronics world every year, it has been supplanted by Mobile World Congress. Everything is mobile, everything is personal and these old shows don’t reflect that.