Championing True Equal Access

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-10-26 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

W3C's map leads to enabled applications; this ARIA is engineering, not opera.

With its September release of WAI-ARIA, the Web Accessibility Initiative road map for Accessible Rich Internet Applications, the World Wide Web Consortium sends developers an implicit mandate to restore equal Web content access for all.

Developers should also appreciate that there are explicit mandates—as well as evolving case law—that combine to make Web accessibility for the disabled a priority for the enterprise, and a potentially lucrative move as more Web users seek to engage with Net content via non-PC devices.

In its primal state, the Web divided the duties of representation and rendering. If a Web-surfing PC user cant read the fine print on an ordinary Web page, typing a simple keychord (in Mozilla, for example, Ctrl+) will helpfully show all text on the page in the next-larger size. That interaction reflects the antediluvian contract between Web and client: HTML specifies the role and content of an element, while a client-side interface (browser or other) parses the markup tags and delivers that content to the user.

That clear assignment of roles made Web content readily accessible to any device, in any environment, to meet any need. Visually impaired users could command enlarged fonts, or send text to a speech synthesizer to be spoken aloud. Graphics could be described to a blind user, or to a user whose eyes were engaged elsewhere, by parsing the text in an image tags ALT attribute—assuming that a page author used ALT informatively, rather than providing typical but useless ALT text such as "right-click to download."

The same package of content could usefully be delivered to a full-screen PC, a small-screen handheld device, an eyes-free automotive user, or even a childs wirelessly linked and speech-synthesizing teddy bear, without cumbersome development and maintenance of multiple content streams in device-specific formats.

Overenriched

When eWEEK Labs looks at the latest generation of Web pages, dramatically enriched with AJAX (Asynchronous Java-Script and XML) or other interactive technology, were reminded of Dustin Hoffmans character in the movie "Tootsie."

Hoffman, playing an actor who cant get a job, argues with his agent about a previous appearance in a TV commercial: "You played a tomato for 30 seconds," his agent reminds him, "and they went a half a day over schedule cause you wouldnt sit down."

"Yes, it wasnt logical."

"You were a tomato! A tomato doesnt have logic!"

Thats what we sometimes wish we could say to a Web page that has taken on the burden of being an application, all on its own, with the browser reduced to merely a passive frame.

This issue has not suddenly burst upon the scene. More than seven years ago, the W3C draft note "Profiles and tools of Web users with disabilities" warned that "Web accessibility guidelines are essential for Web site development and for Web-related applications development."

In quick succession, revisions of that document began to include the point that good design for access by the disabled is also good design for everyone else. "The reader may note," observed a second draft only three days later—already retitled, "Functional and technical requirements related to Web accessibility"—"that each of these accessibility solutions also benefits nondisabled users."

Seven years later, this months Technology Penetration Report from E-Soft (www.securityspace.com/s_survey/data/man.200609/techpen.html) estimates that nearly three-fifths of all Web sites use JavaScript, and nearly one in eight use Flash or Shockwave animations. To the visually disabled user, such a site may be a blank wall barring access to the information superhighway.

The WAI-ARIA road maps introduction (www.w3.org/TR/2006/WD-aria-roadmap-20060926/#intro) expresses the hope that it will "create a bridge … to assist assistive technology vendors in providing accessible, usable solutions." In the long run, all users will likely benefit from the design discipline that may result.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.
 
 
 
 
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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