December 14, 2002

Accessible persona

I was reminded today of Marcus a persona in Mark Pilgrim's Accessibility tutorial for Weblogs (and anybody else interested). Marcus is actually a real person (as pointed out by Mark), which drives the persona home. This may be my favorite example currently for accessibility.

At work we constantly get outside developers turning over non-accessible sites or applications. The client I work for is put through the painful task of explaining what needs to be done to meet Section 508 requirements. The teeth pulling the client goes through is shameful as the outside contractors want every single item spelled out and they want to know why (they usually have built the application or site through reusing a previous product built by somebody that is no longer there and that way they can do the job cheaply and make a better profit, had they built from the beginning knowing and understanding the requirements it would have been easy and inexpensive to do). Often times I am asked to help define what needs to be done and why something fails compliance, usually as a sanity check (accessibility has been an area of strength for four years or more). The regulations are very broad and do not define the exact actions that should be avoided (this is the correct approach to allow for technological improvements).

Marcus is a great example to have on the shelf as much of the information I work with during the day is public information that the taxpayers paid for, whether they are sighted, physically able, have their hearing, or not. We know that there is a decent number of users that come to government sites from publicly available systems (like in libraries) that have technology that is nowhere near current. These people should be able to get to the information and use the information and applications around it as others can use it. Marcus is usually what we see as worse case scenarios using Lynx, but also what we think of as our baseline. Knowing Marcus exists and is really helps greatly.

There is also a benefit side to building accessible information, it is future ready information. The information that is fully accessible is ready to use with no (or is rare cases slight) modification on mobile devices. This is the wonderful thing about building accessible information. One of the first steps is building information that validates to a standard. The next thing is separating style from the content by using style sheets, which make it easy to over ride any style that is problematic or to easily allow for scalable styles. This two helps create information that is future compatible. Accessible information can also be easily reused in from its presentation as it is built to standards that ease.

Accessible information is also structured properly. Structuring information properly is far more than how it looks, it is how is marked up. A header on a Web page has an "h1, h2, etc" tag around it, which eases the ability to build a table of contents or use that header as a contextual aid to summarize the information below it (that is if headers are tagged properly and the content in the header is properly descriptive). Structuring the information helps the information be reusable out of the Web page as that is what HTML does, provides structure elements in the markup tags. If information to be reused has needs (including structure and context that is easily discernible), which validating HTML provides as a basic foundation -- of course there is much that can be improved upon the basic HTML markup, but it addresses the information needs. Building accessible information applications (Web sites included) keeps money from being wasted in the future and it does not require buying a third-party application, which are often cause more problems than they solve where accessibility is concerned (this will not always be the case).

As Joe Clark's book, Building Accessible Websites points out accessible does not mean ugly or plain. Joe walks the reader through how to make beautiful sites that are also wonderfully to folks like Marcus (side note: Mark Pilgrim edited Joe's book). Another excellent book on accessibility, and is my favorite book on accessibility, as it works very well for Web application developers (and I agree with its approach to information in complex tables more than Joe's approach) is Accessible Web Sites. These are two great resources for leaning how to do things properly. I will be working on longer reviews of each in the near future.


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