Developers Working to Overcome AJAX Accessibility Issues

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2006-07-11

Developers Working to Overcome AJAX Accessibility Issues

Despite providing slick advantages over standard Web application techniques, AJAX presents accessibility issues for some users. Developers, however, are working to address the problem.

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or AJAX, involves a set of Web technologies that are combined to enable dynamic client/server interactions in Web applications without requiring pages to reload or refresh. But those same advantages can present problems because while a Web page is not required to reload to change, many screen readers or other assistive technologies used by sight-impaired or otherwise disabled users may not be aware of the dynamic changes that occur via AJAX-based technology.

However, several vendors are moving to address the issue. MB Technologies, of Warner Robbins, Ga., the maker of the Bindows development framework for building AJAX and Web 2.0 applications, recently announced that Bindows now features Section 508 accessibility compliance. This means developers who use Bindows to build AJAX applications will be able to build applications that meet U.S. government and international standards for accessibility.

Yoram Meriaz, chief executive of MB Tecnologies, said his company worked closely with The Paciello Group, of Nashua, N.H., which specializes in accessible interface design, to add accessibility support to Bindows. Indeed, MB Technologies engineers spent more than a year working with TPG to make Bindows meet accessibility requirements, he said.

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"It was nothing short of a huge undertaking for Bindows to build an AJAX framework that enabled the construction of AJAX and Web 2.0 sites that support accessibility," Meriaz said. "We had a team of developers working on it since January 2005 to achieve this objective."

Meriaz said MB Technologies had two main obstacles to overcome. One was the requirement to support multiple browsers and multiple assisted technology tools, each with its own set of quirks and issues, he said.

Another key obstacle was tackling the issue both from the framework perspective and the individual components perspective to achieve a goal of true zero-footprint or no installation even when working with assisted technology, Meriaz said.

"It is one thing to create a Web site that supports accessibility; it is more difficult to create an application that supports accessibility. Our task was even harder—create a framework that enables it for both," Meriaz said.

Meriaz said MB Technologies motivation for adding accessibility support was that many of the companys clients develop software for Fortune 100 companies that include government agencies in their target markets.

TPG is a pioneer in the field of accessible interface design, Meriaz said. "We have been extremely impressed by the quality of their work and knowledge in this area," he said. In addition, members of TPG hold positions on the Accessibility Advisory Boards for Microsoft, the federal government (Section 508) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and membership in the IEEE Computer Society, he said.

"Bindows represents a major advancement in the accessibility of rich Internet and Web 2.0 applications and, I am very happy to say, raises the bar for AJAX accessibility," said Mike Paciello, founder and president of TPG, in a statement. "MB Technologies and TPG are committed to continued enhancement of Bindows to ensure that it empowers developers with the framework and tool set they need to create Section 508- and W3C-compliant applications. Bindows 2.0 represents that level of commitment, establishing MB Technologies as a frontrunner in the pursuit of AJAX and dynamic Web application accessibility."

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For its part, Original Software, an automated testing tools provider based in Basingstoke, United Kingdom, with offices in Westmont, Ill., is addressing the issue of AJAX accessibility by building on Microsoft and Java accessibility technologies, said Colin Armitage, CEO of Original Software. Armitage said Originals TestDrive-Gold supports Windows and Java applications, and also other programming environments such as HTML, Visual Basic, Lotus Notes, AJAX, .Net, C and C#.

And Microsoft has been at work addressing accessibility in its Web application development tool set, including both the Microsoft ASP.Net framework and the companys AJAX tool known as "Atlas."

"Accessibility was a big focus in ASP.Net 2.0, so by extension its part of Atlas," said Keith Smith, senior product manager in the Web Platform and Tools group at Microsoft. "Out of the box, ASP.Net 2.0 generates XHTML 1.0 Transitional and Section 508/WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] conformant code." XHTML 1.0 Transitional is a W3C standard for creating markup that can be rendered by most modern browsers.

"ASP.Net 2.0 produces markup that conforms to these standards, making it much easier to build accessible conformant sites," Smith said.

Next Page: IBM wont be outdone.

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Not to be outdone, IBM in June announced plans to donate key intellectual property to the open-source community to help with AJAX accessibility challenges.

IBM is contributing code to the Dojo Toolkit, a popular open-source AJAX development framework. The IBM contributions will extend the Dojo Toolkit to further enable the internationalization of applications and make them more accessible to persons with disabilities through a variety of assistive technologies, including DHTML and accessible widgets, IBM officials said.

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Alex Russell, project lead for the Dojo Toolkit and president of the Dojo Foundation, said in a statement: "IBMs contributions are creating the foundation for even broader adoption of dynamic Web interfaces, even for users that have traditionally not benefited from them."

Kevin Hakman, director of product marketing for TIBCO General Interface at TIBCO Software, said The Open AJAX Alliance, of which TIBCO is a member, has placed AJAX accessibility on its agenda. "More significantly, the browser vendors and … the screen reader vendors like Freedom Scientific with its popular JAWS product are addressing it [accessibility and AJAX]," Hakman said. "Accordingly, its an industry effort, not just the effort of one vendor."

AJAX and accessibility is "definitely a big topic," according to Dion Almaer, an AJAX expert and co-founder of has increasingly addressed the issue, noting that lawsuits regarding AJAX and accessibility have cropped up when some users were unable to access information from Web sites that used AJAX-style applications.

However, the bottom line is "It is hard to be 100 percent accessible," Almaer said. "People are working on it, including big people like IBM, and many people just do not care to be accessible in the standards sense."

Coach Wei, chief technology officer and co-founder of Nexaweb Technologies, of Burlington, Mass., said a lot more needs to be done to address accessibility and AJAX.

"This is a key issue, and I dont think the community is paying enough attention to it yet," Wei said.

He said plain HTML is fairly accessible, in that most browsers feature support for accessibility technologies such as keyboard navigation, screen readers and so on. "However, AJAX pushes developers to fancy user interfaces that can easily break accessibility," Wei said.

Essentially, AJAX brings two problems to accessibility: incompatibility with non-AJAX browsers; and accessibility with the AJAX user interface—most AJAX applications use AJAX widgets that may or may not support accessibility, Wei said.

"I think accessibility is an important requirement for AJAX to be adopted by enterprises, and the community still has a long way to go to address it," Wei said.

Meanwhile, TIBCOs Hakman shared the contents of an e-mail he received from Dennis Godin, a technical support specialist at Freedom Scientific, in St, Petersburg, Fla., that said Freedom Scientific plans to include support for AJAX in the next version of the companys JAWS screen reader, Version 7.10.

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Joe Walker, a partner in the London-based consultancy Getahead and creator of the DWR (Direct Web Remoting) tool kit, a Java-based AJAX tool kit, said in a blog post that he believes there are three myths about AJAX and accessibility: AJAX is a single issue; all accessibility issues must be fixed; and JavaScript wont work with screen readers.

"One of the problems with accessibility as a single concept is that it lumps together issues that are sometimes fairly unrelated," Walker said.

Blind people have different accessibility requirements from partially sighted people, or those with motor impairment, he said. Likewise, people with slow modems need different things than those on corporate networks with strict security, Walker added. "We need to think about separate requirements separately," he said.

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