Liveblogging a panel at South by Southwest 2005 (; ) with Sharron Rush, Wendy Chisholm, Matt May, Michael Cooper; 2005.03.13 15:27

Sharron: Our goal is that, by the time you leave, you’ll know more about these things. We’re using a working definition of accessibility today – techniques that will enable all users, regardless of disabilities, to obtain the same information and perform the same function as any other user. Her three ways to achieve accessibility: Understand the big picture, advocate for usage of tools, and understand how to use those tools.

Wendy: WCAG 2 “will be released in the late spring of 2005” is what we’ve been saying for a while, but we’re not there yet. We should be done this year. Until then, WCAG 1.0 is stable and usable. Part of the reason it is taking a while is we’re trying to make it non–technology-specific. WCAG 1.0 came out in May 1999 and is HTML-specific to a great extent. WCAG 2 will be nonspecific and, importantly, testable.

It’s taking them a long time to understand what is needed by as many people as they can accommodate, but they’re documenting their assumptions along the way. The big picture is making the world more accessible to everyone. She did a photo tour in Austin taking pictures of everything related to accessibility in Austin.

We don’t know all of the design decisions you need to make; we’re going to give you principles that you can apply to your particular design. How would you give people using an “audio design” the same information (e.g., grouping) that you provide in use of colour in graphic design?

alt texts are covered in a single requirement in WCAG 1.0, but six requirements handle it in 2.0. Guidelines are not just for content authors, who also need to be using evaluation and authoring tools. User agents need to support features available in content. Users themselves have to know how to use those tools.

James Craig wonders what “audio design” is: What your content sounds like in an audio interface, like Voice+XML or a phone interface.

Matt: When we started off with the Web, everyone did their own thing, but we eventually got to understand what is and is not an accessibility problem. We took all those issues and decided to resolve them by putting them squarely on the back of you, the content author. Right? That’s what people think when they hear about WCAG 1.0 – it’s the alpha and omega of the process. But we’d actually created three sets of accessibility guidelines.

User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) deals with browsers and media players, among others, with 81 checkpoints. Used with WCAG, it solves a lot of things that people have trouble with right now, like rendering according to the intent of the author. A D-link or a Skip to Main Content link is an example of an author trying to overcome the limitations of the browsing agent. We say: Render this as it was intended and expose it so that assistive technology can understand it.

Authors and users in the market have market power to make changes. Chris Wilson of Microsoft says their market for Internet Explorer is Web developers. If you’ve got an accessibility problem, then you need to go to the browser vendors and say so. Users complain that they have accessibility problems, but vendors say nobody had ever talked to them about accessibility.

Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) is also coming up to a version 2.0. It’s not just GoLive and Dreamweaver that are authoring tools. He asks how many people present use a content-management system – about seven. But those are more than just Plone, Drupal, or Vignette – also Movable Type and WordPress qualify. About twenty more hands shoot up. Blogging tools are authoring tools. All of these tools should be working toward the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines.

If you are just thinking, “Well, I’m a content author,” if you’re producing something that outputs content, then you’re an authoring-tool creator. The life cycle of accessible content is content that validates against WCAG (sic) and can be understood by an accessible user agent.

He points to Guidelines 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 of ATAG as particularly important and simple to implement. For example, stripping out existing accessibility information is easy to do and easy to avoid doing.

Question from audience: Do you also include application/server platforms, like WebLogic or WebSphere? Answer: Anything that produces the final-form content rendered to the user is an authoring tool. Anything that is throwing HTML into the process would be considered an authoring tool.

Michael: Heuristic evaluations and user testing are two approaches to evaluation.

Automated tools can find problems quickly, and can also find things that are not problems. Bobby has 90 different tests it performs. Manual evaluation is much harder and has been slighted over the years. Some tools are being developed to support manual evaluation. Guidelines are not fully automatable; accessibility is not an art, not a science. Often the guidelines are context-dependent, so a human needs to understand the context and decide whether or not the guideline applies (e.g., is an image important enough to require a long description?).

Upcoming languages are not as easy to read by automated tools as HTML is, so manual evaluation will become more important (as with scripts, movies). The manual checks are numerous enough to be overwhelming. Plus different tools interpret guidelines differently.

Question from Sharron: We keep talking about return on investment – opening new markets and such. Should we even be bothering with that argument? Can you back it up?

Wendy: It’s a question of discrimination and civil rights. Without accessibility, some people will permanently be left at the back of the bus.

Matt: Poor accessibility in a site is symptomatic of a higher-order brokenness. If you have 5,000 errors on your front page, accessibility might not be the first thing you think about. Unbreaking your page from a fundamental standpoint is what you should be thinking about. Standards compliance is a great thing; it’s not going to get you 100% of the way there, but it’s better than inventing yourself from scratch every time you do a site.

Question: Is Section 508 a different set of accessibility guidelines? Sharron showboats in response to state that they bring that up in their courses. Great, Sharron. Great.

Wendy: WCAG 1.0 attempted to unite 40 different guidelines, but it had its own deficiencies that have prompted other sets of guidelines. There is a need to update and bring things back together again, and that is one of the goals of WCAG 2 – look at what’s happened in the last five years and create something that people can adopt. They aren’t contradictory, though. Most of these things are built on the same basic principles. If you conform to one, you’re 80% of the way to any of the others.

Question from same person: If you’re not 508-compliant, you get called on it (at least in government) and need to redevelop at your own cost.

Wendy: WCAG is a voluntary standard; we have no teeth behind it. For 508 to say “this is a law,” this gave it some teeth.

Question from Sharron: Where do people actually complain about UAAG and ATAG noncompliance?

Matt: Stop buying them, and tell them why you’re not buying them anymore. If you have to spend as much time remediating your site as developing it, you’re losing money.

Followup from Sharron: What if we work for state government and have no choice over the tool we’re using?

Matt: There are lots of ways to make noise.

Wendy: We have 200 tests being evaluated by 25 people, and it’s not easy to get people to agree on those.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.03.13 17:33. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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