Yesterday (2006.10.25), I presented at a Toronto Interacts event on Web accessibility. The audience consisted of some 32 people. I made sure to go last so I could correct everybody’s mistakes. (Photos; speaking notes.)

Before everything started, I walked up to the podium to say hello to Jason from CNIB, memorable from the SCORE camp and my first book launch. Just in case anyone, including Jason, is wondering, I find him rather cool, actually. He had PowerPoint up on his machine. (The slides showed a typically Tufte-noncompliant presentation style.) I had a few words with his colleague about how PowerPoint is a proprietary, unstructured (also unpublished) format (“But it can be accessible,” she said). I turned Jason on to S5.

I am pretty sure that the two CNIBbers (pronounced “snibbers”) were quietly seething during my presentation. It only stands to reason: It hurts to get so very much wrong, and to be corrected in so very public a manner. I’m sure it hurt even more when I started off by saying the CNIB library has had 3½ years to turn my book – admittedly the best-marked-up they’d ever received – into a DAISY audiobook, yet it still hasn’t happened.

I engaged in 18th-century liveblogging by taking notes during the two presentations that preceded mine. These notes are as accurate as all my notes are: Extremely. This is another way of telling you “Yes, they really did say that.”

(This posting was truncated for a full day after I saved it, yet nobody told me.)


Дмитрий Бутерин, Toronto Interacts volunteer president, started the show at 1515 hours. Their mandate is to bring together UI people with a goal to improve the quality of Web applications. Sites are getting [fancier] and better – and also worse.

(Mentions Target lawsuit.) The question was whether the Web should be considered a place of doing business. If so, it must be accessible.

Runs Bonasource. Building good Web sites is not easy; building good Web sites and making them accessible is much harder. Difficult to make business case. How do we make sure not to look at accessibility in isolation? Not a small portion of the population. If you build an accessible Web site, it will be more usable to everyone.

From September to June, they hold about eight events a year.

Vandy Gadia: I’m honoured to introduce a very, very distinguished group of speakers. Lawyer from Aird & Berlis LLP is a no-show. But we have a new addition: Vicki Mains, national director of systems operations, CNIB [making two speakers from CNIB]. She’s been an instructor, as at universities. Jason Thompson is a technical accessibility specialist. He will explain the demographic requirements of accessibility.

Vicki Mains

Gives an introduction about CNIB. They have a new logo and they’re officially just “CNIB” now. Developed the CNIB Digital Library as a model of collaboration and accessibility. [Runs overlong PowerPoint slides.] Claims CNIB serves “all Canadians,” including sighted family members and caregivers of blind people. Rehabilitation and mobility products, peer support, alternate-format newspapers and magazines, Braille and audiobook library.

Their accessibility design services carry a fee. [She would go on to tell us we could hire the CNIB to work on accessibility four more times.] Mentions new CNIB building, paid for by selling off part of their land for condos. Is a “model” of accessible design. Two people in wheelchairs with guide dogs can pass by in the hall, and they’ve got talking signs. (She doesn’t show photos!)

Jason Thompson

Sees accessibility and usability as different sides of the same coin. Improved accessibility inherently improves accessibility. But when designing for usability, you have to put the person first “and not just design for accessibility.” [I think he meant “don’t just design to guidelines.” I think he also meant “make it work in IE6 and Jaws.”]

Only 5% of books are “available online” (though his slide uses the words “available in accessible formats”). CNIB’s old talking-book masters were reel-to-reel tapes, now being converted to digital files. (“We could not afford to lose them,” reads the slide.)

At the Digital Library, you can order books, search catalogue. There’s also the Children’s Discovery Portal.

“It wasn’t designed to be gorgeous, to be mesmerizing visually, but to be accessible.” (Shows actively hideous search results for Harry Potter, with 40 or more links all scrunched together after what turns out to be the following markup: <li><CITE><a>Harry Potter and the goblet of fire</a></CITE><BR> <strong>Author: </strong>Rowling, J. K. <BR> <strong>Format: </strong>Online Digital Audio <BR> <strong>Access Path: </strong>. I’d flunk you on WCAG right there.) You can set preferences, like switching the menus from top to bottom.

“Using the accessible technology is different from knowing the technology…. Not simply that you can download a demo… and you know how to use a screen reader or a large-print program…. We have a group of very experienced [people] that really know how the technology works.” Shows ZoomText. “Can you imagine if this Web site had lots of whitespace?” At 800×600 at 8× magnification, you “can easily lose things on a Web site when there’s that much whitespace between things.” [Then use a zoom layout.]

Accessibility for children: They have Flash games that are accessible, including Dreadnought, card-matching. “A great way to showcase that Flash can be accessible.”

(Shows unparsable table of percentages of the population with different disabilities.) “These are some pretty big numbers when you start looking at them as a pie chart” (which he then dutifully shows). Up to 32% of the Canadian market has a disability. [This would be another case of how to lie with statistics. Jason did not demonstrate that all the disability groups he listed, including “pain,” have needs in Web accessibility. Only those groups are important.]

Question from Robin MacRae, Toronto Interacts about people with more than one disability. Jason: Statistics Canada has no information on multiple disabilities.

Shows Amazon.CA without images or CSS [an unrealistic example, as CSS is used by screen readers and the browsers they sit on top of; nor are images necessarily turned off; nor are screen-reader users uniformly unable to see images]. Presents this slide as “how a Jaws user would see or read the site…. I would classify it as inaccessible,” in part because a screen reader would be stuck enunciating the image filenames.

Shows mystery-meat navigation at another site, mentions mobility impairment. “That isn’t usable. that isn’t accessible. Does everyone agree with that?

Mentions accessibility myths:

  • Accessible sites are boring and have no graphics [rather like the CNIB Digital Library, I presume?]. Accessible sites can be “beautiful.” Mentions Flash, graphics, and forms [for some reason].
  • Accessible sites are expensive. It’s part of the development process. [Mentions CNIB’s paid services again. Ignores the issue of the expense of retrofitting an inaccessible existing site.]
  • A site is accessible if it has valid code. Not true at all. Valid code is the objective that we’re all going for, but we’re not there yet. (Claims valid-HTML sites can be inaccessible.)

(Does another pitch for CNIB’s paid services. Mentions DAISY without defining or explaining it. Mentions somebody else at the CNIB we should be contacting, not him or Vicki.)


  1. Q. from man: What percentage of Websites today would be considered accessible?

    Jason: Below 10%.

    Vicki: The number is fairly low. (Claims the NFB won their case against Target. I immediately said “That’s incorrect. The case was allowed to proceed. There was no ruling on substantive grounds.”) The AODA’s “next mandate will be communications, with a focus on the Web.” [The mandate absolutely does not emphasize any aspect of communications, including the Web.] Says AODA is like the ADA but better. Complains ADA was drafted in very very broad terms, and, though it has some power, it has been diffused among groups like people with drug problems [who, by implication, are malingerers without a real disability like blindness].)

  2. Q. from Robin MacRae, Toronto Interacts (not-atypically lengthy and difficult to paraphrase): How has our thinking changed on disabled people? Do we not have a more modern view?

    Vicki: Focus on people first. We worked for a long time to change the language people use. Yes, there was a time when it was very difficult to know what term to use. No one likes to be labelled. “People who are experiencing vision loss” [a mere 43 hits on Google, only one from CNIB; no hits using CNIB’s search engine]; “people with disabilities.” Other staff member is at ISO in Switzerland right now.

    In Web accessibility, people with disabilities are more likely to use your service. The use of computers is much higher [not from the published evidence I have]. Print-handicapped Canadians read on average 60 books a year (nondisabled: five).

    (Mentions Grocery Gateway twice, claiming Jason had also done so, which he hadn’t.) Something like Grocery Gateway is worth every penny.

  3. Q. from man: ZoomText: Does it work if your Web site uses absolute font sizes? [I assume he means px, which is not an absolute unit.]

    Jason: Yes.

    Q. Is it free?

    Dmitry: It’s built into Windows.

    (Jason then does a bad job explaining that ZoomText is a commercial product. Vicki pushes the CNIB adaptive-technology Web page.)

    Vicki: “I mean, we could stand up here and discuss W3C, and you all know that.” Then says you could meet guidelines and still fall short.

  4. Q. from woman: Does CNIB produce all its own audio material?

    Vicki: Yes. We have 16 recording studios and three shifts of readers running six days a week. “That’s why we couldn’t afford to lose those tapes.” Navantis does their Web development (“They do YTV”). They actually came to CNIB and we brought in children, peer groups. There were a lot of revisions. (Site gets a lot of compliments.) (Mentions her dad, a Web beginner, who expects every link to be blue and underlined. He called her up to complain about “a big picture.”)

    There’s a double learning curve: Learn the adaptive technology, then learn the computer.

    We run the digital library because something people really miss is newspapers, magazines. We do training, like learning to cross the street by sound alone. Learning those new skills is tiring; that’s why we made the process of downloading books simpler.

    “We could have made it pretty.”

  5. Q. from woman: How do you evaluate Web sites for accessibility? Do we include all needs, or only vision?

    Vicki. Vision, because it’s more difficult. (Claims “we” serve mobility-impaired, hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind.) “If it will work with Jaws, which is the preëminent screen reader, and ZoomText, you’re pretty much guaranteed” (does not finish sentence).

  6. Q. Do you have any advice about French? Do the adaptive technologies work in French? We’re even having a hard time getting anyone with accessibility knowledge who speaks French.

    Vicki: We have one person on staff with French as a first language. Jaws is in, what, 11 languages [actually 17], including one or two Asian languages?

  7. Q. Is there some sort of certification process, like by the CNIB? There’s lots of strategic advantages to being able to lay claim (to being accessible).

    Vicki: There are lots of organizations like Bobby [sic] that were set up to certify Web sites. Yes, you can run an automated tool, but in actual fact it might not be accessible. It will look for all kinds of obvious things. [This did not, of course, answer the question.]

  8. Q. from Robin: Do the adaptive technologies treat HTML as it was designed to be used or as it is actually used?

    A. None of these products are specific to the Web. They’re general-purpose accessibility tools for your computer.

    Q. So it differentiates things like headings from paragraphs from lists?

    A. Yes, it does that.

    Q. Is that what distinguishes a better reader?

    Vicki: Yes. The more-experienced user, who has maybe been using it for more than a year, will know the keystrokes to get all the links on a page. Beginning users will read down line by line, which is “very tedious.”

  9. Q. from man: How do you handle user-generated content, like images?

    Jason: Make it mandatory to include alt text.

    Vicki: You don’t want a paragraph[-long alt text], though.

  10. Q. from Vandy: If automated tools can catch 60% of accessibility problems, is your best strategy to test your site for accessibility [this way]?

    Vicki: You can attempt to do user focus groups and invite people with disabilities to participate in those groups. You can call us and have us do it for you. Those are really your two options [emphasis added].

    People know how to get to us. Usually [sponsors] offer $25,$50 for testers. Otherwise you get 20 people saying they’re interested but only two show up.

Rami Tabbah

From Ergonaute Consulting (session notes and blog entry). Introduced as having a master’s in computer–human interaction and 15 years’ experience. Title: “It Takes Two to Tango.” Sounds nervous at the outset.

Reasons to be accessible:

  • Number of people with disabilities
  • Market: $175 billion income
  • Few sites are accessible
  • New laws and regulations
  • Moral reasons
  • “Allow a dormant workforce to contribute”

Some people think we are doing people with disabilities a favour by making sites accessible. “Given the same access to information, they can learn the same as everyone else.” Plus they learn differently, which is valuable. “I seriously think they think in a different way, because they [process] information differently.”

Laws: Section 508, Common Look and Feel, ODA (sic). Dmitry and Robin perk up and say Section 508 is federal-government only [and U.S.-only]. Says ODA has the same requirements in different words. “I know there is a new bill. It’s coming out and will have more teeth.” [It’s been the law since 2005 and no, it doesn’t, at least when it comes to Web sites.] Says Common Look and Feel is WCAG in different words.

Goal: “Offer the same message and functionality to everyone, including people with disabilities.” We define user types in any project. This is one user type. We need to take every type of user into consideration from the beginning.

He’s working on a Flash project he cannot describe in much detail, with interaction, forms [again on that list for some reason], animation, and games, all of which must be accessible.

What they did:

  • Reviewed for compliance
  • Usability testing
  • Internal guidelines created
  • Team developed: Usability, accessibility, compliance, developer

Dmitry asks: Compliance is more of a legal expert? A. No, guidelines. In Flash you don’t have Bobby.

WCAG focuses on HTML and CSS. For Flash, we “followed the spirit of WCAG, keeping the same accessibility in mind.”

Challenge: Meeting the spec does not mean the Web site is usable by people with disabilities.

If a Web site is not usable, it is not really accessible even if it follows accessibility guidelines.

Mentions a site with “a hundred links.” “Someone blind will have to listen, one by one, to a hundred links.” So maybe we should do something to improve their scanning capability.

Gives example of a puzzle showing a man with four thought balloons, each labelled with a question mark. (Mentions WCAG 2.1, about colour, as applicable. [It isn’t.]) How do you make that accessible?

Pop-ups and layers: Layers need to be modal and treated like Windows pop-ups. Accessibility guidelines do not mention that.

Complex designs, like flowcharts, games, forms [again]. Do we redesign for accessibility? How? Which description to add? That would be new content. [He uses “description” to mean “text equivalent,” though they are separate things.]

Do you give up and just give a description? Possibly – or you can do something else.

Task analysis shows users with disabilities have a different model, different scanning, flat hierarchies; grouping is not the same.

Usability for people with disabilities is a different usability. It’s like doing the design twice. Usability and accessibility go hand in hand.

Who writes the alt text? Mostly left to developers, even though the rest of the site is done by professional writers.

His guidelines:

  • Architecture
    • Depth of Web site should be minimal
    • Link name should be identical to the title of the page opened
    • Last item of a breadcrumb should not be linked to show it is the current page
  • Page design
    • Tab order must be compatible with the task
    • Pages have titles and headings
    • No scrolling or flashing text, as magnifier users don’t have enough time to read it before it disappears
  • Hidden content
    • Design alternate text with the same care as main content
    • Description of image should start with “image of,” “logo of,” “ornament”[no, it should not]
  • Visible content
    • Write for the Web, with short sentences
    • Make structure clear, obvious
    • Descriptive links (not “more,” “click here”)
    • Start bullets and headings with relevant keywords[impracticable]
  • Use simplest and easiest language, especially for cognitive disabilities
  • Pay attention to task analysis

Usability and accessibility are comparable. Both are about a design adapted to users, not vice-versa.


  1. Q. “$175 billion” – is that worldwide?

    A. Yes.

  2. Q. from Dmitry: At a conference here recently, we learned that Web portals should use their homepage as a directory, with 300 links as an example. So do we develop an alternate Web page? Isn’t it true we cannot reconcile these very different strategies and approaches?

    A. You can use skips, hidden labels. [Gives an example using French/English page. Dmitry says that isn’t a comparable use case, implicitly because the languages aren’t different enough. I say it is if it’s English and Arabic.]

    Q. But you do give people a jump-to-section link and it’s not very usable. People click it and they end up on the very same page.

    A. They’re not visible, but for [disabled users], they’re very important.

  3. Q. from Dmitry: Very complicated portals: One approach is the regular way and then do an accessibility review. The alternative is to do accessibility while it’s being built.

    A. I think it will cost a lot more to add accessibility later.

    Q. But “right away” also takes more time.

    A. Depends on the number of users, types of disabilities. It is very complex, and if you avoid accessibility at the beginning, you may decide [be forced to?] create a separate Web site.

    Vicki [helpfully answering somebody else’s question unbidden]: The whole principle of universally-accessible design is not to retrofit. It will always cost you more to add it later. Work on your templates. You don’t know who your audience could potentially be. At some point, that legislation will become stronger. It’s a given. (Mentions Baby Boomers and not enough young employees to replace them.)

    (Dmitry and Vicki go back and forth for a while, untranscribed.)

    Vicki: An alternate design is never maintained. It’s never as current as the main design. (Mentions Target. Says the NFB sued Microsoft. Claims Bill Gates had said that accessibility never meant anything to him [an assertion contradicted by Gates’s own statements at CNIB’s own gala benefit for him when the Digital Library launched].) NFB’s class-action lawsuit changed that. Unlike CNIB, NFB is a consumer organization, with lobbyists in Washington.

    (I gave up transcribing this specific question.)

  4. Q. I can understand it takes specialized skills to design for accessibility. What about developing?

    A. They need to know the guidelines very well and how to apply them.

    Q. It is not logical, is it, to hire a firm to come up with a design, then just hand it over to the IT team to implement it?

    A. (Agrees.)

  5. Q. What about mobility impairment? Is it all about tabbing through a page?

    A. This is exactly the complexity you have. Where to cut, where to make decisions? All these guidelines that overlap and contradict each other. Blindness, deafness are easy [so captioning is “easy”?], but when they combine, or with lesser-known disabilities like cognitive, ask yourself who will use the application.

    Q. Can you specify tab order?

    A. Yes. [Helpfully answering someone else’s question unbidden, I say you should not unless you really know what you’re doing.]

  6. Q. from woman: Are you advocating sites where there would be separate pages? Severe problems maintaining content twice.

    A. I’m not advocating. It’s always a grey area.

    Q. If you do split it up, how do you maintain consistency?

    A. It’s a difficult design. Where will I have the audio alternative, here or there?

    Q. It seems like a difficult path.

    A. The biggest percentage [of users with disabilities, presumably] would be losing by going to the other site.

    Q. from other person: I did usability testing with people with disabilities recently. They don’t want a separate site. (Mentions case of lots of links.) Accessibility is a challenge because developers are usually in their 20s and 30s and in good shape. So you should code to standards and use a separate QA team to verify it. Don’t have developers verify themselves.

    A. (Meanders.) Training courses for developers would help.

  7. Q. from Robin: People with disabilities a different way of reading a page. Developers could do easy things like blurring the text [how?] or turning the monitor off. But how do you relate to different mental models?

    A. Usability testing or codesign with a person with a disability.


  • When it comes to Web accessibility, the CNIB is another way in which Toronto sucks. On a good day, CNIB maxes out at getting things 80% right while openly, even ferociously, attempting to dominate every aspect of blindness in the country. Do you think there is no reason whatsoever why the Coalition to End the CNIB Monopoly was formed?

    Vicki Mains has much less of a command of Web accessibility than she thinks, and Jason really has to disabuse himself of the notion that valid-HTML sites are inaccessible in any significant number.

    Then again, the CNIB Digital Library uses invalid HTML (52 errors; incorrect character encoding). The CNIB homepage uses tables for layout (11 of them). If you didn’t know CNIB was a century and a half old before you visited their site, you sure would afterward.

    Jason and Vicki brought a pile of brochures to give out, including that godawful “Clear Print” nonsense that contradicts CNIB’s own research.

    Now, during the moments in which they weren’t doing a sell job for CNIB’s services (something I would not advise anyone to engage), Vicki and Jason made sure to explain that they could have made their sites “mesmerizing” to look at, but didn’t. Was that an actual and informed design choice, or the result of a complete lack of design skills, or a paternalistic assumption that even people with modest visual impairments deserve no actual design at all?

    Compare the Digital Library site or anything at CNIB.CA with, for example, Glaucoma Research Foundation. Both sites explicitly serve visually-impaired people. Which one is more up to date and more “mesmerizing” to look at? (The Glaucoma site has been dumbed down considerably since its clever and witty redesign. There isn’t even a zoom layout anymore. I wonder why.)

    Can you realistically make the case that Glaucoma’s site is less accessible than CNIB’s?

    Do you really trust CNIB’s advice? If so, why? Because they’ve been around a long time? Because somebody on their staff is over in Switzerland working on a standards committee? Heck, I was on a standards committee just last week right here in Toronto. CNIB could have joined us. They could have taken the subway.

    Best of all, though? The CNIB is so backward they don’t even have a Weblog they can use to vigorously denounce me and this posting. Funny how the RNIB runs a Web-development blog, though, isn’t it?

  • I think the proof of Rami’s pudding will be in the tasting. If and when this mysterious Flash application launches, we can evaluate how well it applies old guidelines to new technology. If I were him, I’d be keeping certain people at Adobe in the loop.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.10.26 18:22. 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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