Accessibility and Office Documents
By John Brandt, Maine CITE Program
This is the seventh in a series of articles about accessibility and office documents. As more and more information is now shared with the general public via the World Wide Web (WWW), in the next few articles we'll continue our discussion on the use of websites and particularly those commonly referred to as Web 2.0 or social networking sites. In future articles in this series we will also deal with specific applications that can be used on line to communicate information and how the needs of those using Assistive Technology (AT) need to be considered.
Web 2.0 Applications and Accessibility
Following the burst of the “dot-com bubble” in the early 2000s, pundits and technology evangelists began talking about and creating a series of new websites and on-line applications and techniques that have collectively been called Web 2.0. Borrowing from the convention of consecutively identifying new versions and updates of software numerically, Web 2.0 was intended to be viewed as the new and improved version of the World Wide Web.
Over the years the term has been misused and misunderstood by many, but collectively Web 2.0 can best be described as a “trend in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0 ). Key to the description is the notion of "collaboration" as all of these new technologies and techniques call for activities that imply sharing and networking. While many of the initial techniques including blogs, wikis, and rich media have had a personal flair to them, a number of these methods are now becoming a standard way of engaging customers in the business world and constituents in the public policy arenas. Indeed many policy makers are using Web 2.0 applications, and their capacity to “feed” information using a protocol called RSS, to communicate with their constituents on almost a daily basis. Increasingly we are seeing the use of “feedback” systems that allow readers to post comments, make suggestions and provide personal input. Before the web was a place information was simply posted, Web 2.0 makes the Internet a place where people can meet and greet, and engage in ongoing conversations about issues and concerns.
Web 2.0 technologies also bring a level of customizability to web design allowing users to control the flow and distribution of content, providing opportunities for real-time interaction with content, and occasionally combining content from multiple sources into new products; the so-called “mashup” phenomena.
Given these new realities, we must be cognizant and cautious about how people who use various assistive technologies engage within these Web 2.0 systems and models. While many of the techniques are fully accessible, there are some that are not. So in this article, and the next, we will look at some of the techniques and identify areas of concern. We will not comment on specific applications as the list of these is extensive and ever changing. Instead, we will discuss how to approach the use of these applications in a way that will keep accessibility in the forefront.
Perhaps the single technology most commonly associated with Web 2.0 is the “web log” or “blog.” Simply put, the blog is a website maintained by an individual where entries or commentaries are posted on a regular basis – typically in reversed chronological order. Most blog entries are personal accounts, impressions, believes or experiences, however increasingly businesses and organization are using blogs to present content, express opinions, and exchange ideas.
A central feature of most blogs is the ability to capture readers' comments. In business or organizational settings the comments may be used to capture customer or constituent feedback, input or recommendations. In addition, the comments can be used to create a dialog that furthers understanding about the original entry.
A second feature of most blogs is the use of RSS feeds. Often translated as meaning “Really Simple Syndication,” RSS feeds are special files containing the basic, stripped-down content that can be read by a variety of different devices and applications. The RSS content can be “pushed” to various services that allow readers to subscribe to the blog material. Readers are then able to sort the feeds in a way that makes the task of organizing the blog materials easier. They are also able to view the source content on a variety of appliances including cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDA).
There are also derivations of the traditional blog that have grown in popularity. Many individuals and organizations are using a “video blog” or “vlog” to communicate with others on line. Perhaps the most popular location for vlogs is the video hosting website YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com ) where people are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. According to the YouTube website, every minute, ten hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.
Other blog derivations are “photo blogs” (phlogs) such as Flickr, linklogs and blogs with shorter posts called “tumblelogs” (tlog) such as Tumblr. In addition, “micro-blogging” applications such as Twitter are increasingly being used by organizations to keep customers and constituents apprised of current situations. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department maintains a Twitter site informing citizens of emergencies taking place in the city ( http://twitter.com/LAFD ).
Weblogs and Accessibility
Many web accessibility experts agree that there are four main guiding principles of accessibility:
Perceivable means that all web site content must be perceivable by all users despite their disability conditions. Operable means all web sites must be constructed in a way that allows all users to navigate, manipulate and control content. Understandable means the “language” of the web site must be usable to all parties. And, Robust mans that all web content must have functionality across current and future technologies (see http://www.webaim.org/articles/pour/ ).
Blogs, and the specific software that are used to create them, are inherently no more or less accessible than any other web application. Most of the major blogging programs produce accessible code because the blog code generally has to meet rather rigid standards and these standards produce a valid RSS feed,. But like all document creating applications, it is still possible for the user to inadvertently add content to a blog which isn't accessible. As in all digital documents the most common accessibility error is forgetting to add alternative text to images that may be included in the blog entry. In addition, the use of embedded rich media content - video, audio, Flash and the like – can often fail to meet accessibility requirements particularly if the content needs to be captioned. As noted in a previous article in this series, accessibility guidelines in the United States require that when video content is presented on the WWW, it needs to have the audio content provided in an equivalent caption which is synchronized with the presentation. Audio-only documents (e.g., podcasts and other audio files) may be captioned or transcribed and a copy of the transcript provided.
AJAX is also sometimes used with other elements of the blog including the comments input interface and various dynamic features such as “web widgets” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_widget ). Care must therefore be taken to ensure all users can equally access all of the features and services provided by the web log.
In some cases the AT device may not even be able to load the administration page let alone allow the AT user to log in to the account. Therefore, organizations and businesses who are considering adding a blog feature to their website need to be aware that while the blog may be viewable and usable to most users, the administrative side of the application may be problematic.
In this first article about Web 2.0 applications we discussed the use of weblogs and accessibility. Generally speaking, most weblog applications produce valid and accessible code which means most readers of the blog who are using assistive technology should be able to readily access the content. Problems arise when weblog authors fail to take care that their content meets the accessibility guidelines. The most common accessible issues are related to the insertion of images and media in the blog.
Unfortunately, some weblog administrative interfaces can pose problems for authors with disabilities. Given the use of special scripting, some administrative tools cannot be used by people with disabilities.
For More Information
For more information about making accessible weblogs:
Where to go for help…
Maine CITE provides additional resources that can help you with your goal of creating accessible documents. http://www.mainecite.org/awd/accdocs.html
About the writer
John Brandt is a web designer and consultant who works with the Maine CITE Program in the area of accessibility and universal design. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org