Accessibility and Office Documents
By John Brandt, Maine CITE Program
This is the eighth 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, 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) must to be considered.
Social Networking and Accessibility
In the last article, we focused primarily on weblogs and blogging, perhaps the single technology most commonly associated with Web 2.0. Indeed, some would argue that blogging is the core activity of all social networking web sites in that it involves individuals sharing ideas and materials on the web. However, weblogs have become just one part of the Web 2.0 phenomena as more and more individuals and organizations try new and varied approaches to attracting attention and influencing others.
Web-based Social Networking may be defined as a process of creating or joining a community of like-minded individuals in much same way many people join clubs, groups and associations. The process differs in that social networking web sites, in addition to creating virtual places for people to “meet and greet,” also allow members to comment and “tag” the content of other members, linking, and sometimes blending their own content and that of the other's. This construct, frequently referred to as a “folksonomy,” implies that through this process, web content is more accurately filtered and rated. The more people linking to particular content, the more value it attains. Some have suggested that this process validates a notion called “the wisdom of crowds” a notion that CEOs are starting to pay attention to (see Wall Street Journal ).
While many social network sites appeal primarily to young people, increasingly businesses and organizations are using these sites to attract new and wider audiences of all ages. Of the 125 most popular social networking sites ( listed on Wikipedia ), approximately 80 are general sites for individuals to simply “meet and socialize.” In these cases, the meeting is usually done through technological applications like Instant Messaging (IM), selective and private e-mail and commentaries left on others sites. In many cases these social networking sites are grouped around special interests (e.g., music, dating, gaming, reading, collecting), designed for specific age groups (preteens, teens, college age, etc.) or constructed for people from similar cultural or language background.
Four or five of the sites listed in the Wikipedia list appear to exclusively appeal to business interests, designed to facilitate business networking opportunities. Perhaps the largest of these is LinkedIn which claims to have more than 24 million registered users. LinkedIn users can enter information about past employments, schools attended and career and business information. The system will search its membership lists to find matches and add them to the user's private network. The user is then encouraged to use these “links” to facilitate and conduct business and to add new ones, extending the network. Some of these sites are also exclusively “business-to-business” (b2b) websites designed to help organizations find and connect with specific business resources and services.
Even the most popular social networking sites ( MySpace and Facebook) allow (and encourage) organizations and businesses to use these networks to get their message out. For example, Network for Good, a website that brings together donors, volunteers and charities together is designed as a social network whose intention is finding unique ways of accomplishing good.
Still other social networking sites are being used to facilitate social activism. Over the past two years, all of the major presidential candidates have exploited the social networking phenomena and have used these sites to gain support. As reported in the New York Times, “Anyone, even a future president, can register with the site in minutes, even come up with a cutesy online moniker. The implicit goal for most members is to reach out to as many people as possible and add them to their Friend Space — which in politics is known as a candidate's base.”
Some would argue that social networking sites are really primarily on-line repositories of media resources. Sites like Flickr, which still allows visitors to comment, tag and organize the data, are often used primarily as a place to storehouse photos and video clips. Even YouTube, arguably the most popular of the video websites, is increasingly used to store and showcase content. Users upload raw video content to their YouTube account which is then converted into a Flash video format. YouTube also provides the capacity for some rudimentary editing of the video content. The user then embeds a short line of code into any other web page and that page will now contain a playback window with the video content. This allows users with a limited web presence to give the illusion that they have more resources than they really do. The user posting the video benefits from YouTube's vast high speed streaming capacity and does not have to worry about server loading or capacity issues. By the way, all of this service is available free to the user.
Accessibility and Social Networking
The issue of accessibility and the major social networking sites has been rather controversial. In a January 2008 report published by AbilityNet, a United Kingdom based organization dedicated to ensuring Information Technology is accessible to all, the researchers tested five of the major social networking websites and discovered that not only did the all suffer from significant accessibility problems, “most of the websites are either difficult or impossible for disabled people to use – in many cases a user is not even able to register with the website.” (see http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/enation85 )
The primary deficit with the five sites tested ( Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo, Bebo ) was the use of CAPTCHA images (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) in the sign-up routine. In each case, the developers neglected to provide an alternative method for signing up new patrons.
CAPTCHAs have a dubious distinction and are generally frowned upon by accessibility experts. Because of their purely visual nature, CAPTCHAs are not accessible to many people with disabilities, particularly users who are blind or have dyslexia. Attempts at making them more accessible have had mixed results. Using the “auditory method,” developers attempt to make the CAPTCHA accessible to users with screen readers by providing an auditory file along with the visual file. This method also presents problems in that the audio file might conflict with the screenreader and make the site even more confusing to the visitor. In addition, users with multiple disabilities (deaf/blind) will still not be able to access the site.
Other methods for resolving the Turing Test issue is the use of simple questions that humans would easily understand, but computers, in this case web robots, would not. The problem with this technique is that is often discriminates against people with some language based disabilities or who are not proficient in the language the site is written in.
Ultimately the best solution for the Turing Test issue is for these social networking sites to create on-line help desks where a real person can assist the new user in signing up. However, since many of these sites are new startup companies that are offering their services free to the public, the idea of creating an expensive infrastructure is not popular.
In addition to these issues, most the social networking sites are challenged in terms of accessibility for two further reasons.
First, since the vast majority of content on these sites is generated by the individual users who are frequently unsophisticated in web design standards, the content often contains invalid or inaccessible HTML code. Many users decorate their social network sites using color combinations and images that are difficult or impossible to read (even for nondisabled visitors), further making the site inaccessible.
Second, many social networking sites are used to showcase and share various rich media such as music files and video clips. As these users are frequently unfamiliar with accessibility issues, they often fail to provide the necessary captions and alternate text necessary to make the rich media usable to persons using assistive technology. Indeed, the methods employed by most of these social networking applications fail to incorporate procedures for entering important information such as ALT text or labels for input buttons. On MySpace, the application automatically adds arbitrary ALT text to each image posted by the user which is simply the number of the image.
Among the social networking sites that are mainly repositories of rich media content (e.g., YouTube, Flickr, Bebo), the primary concern is that these applications do not allow for opportunities to add the necessary captions and/or transcriptions for videos and audios. At this time, there does not appear to be any method for successfully adding captioning to this video content. I am not aware of any attempts at this time to resolve this weakness.
Considerations and Recommendations
Considering the difficulty many users of assistive technology have using many of the major social networking sites and the extreme limitations of the user's ability to effectively control the layout and design of the web sites, it is generally recommended that these sites be avoided as resources for businesses and organizations. A better alternative may be to incorporate some other customizable web application such as a Content Management Systems that will allow the user to control the layout and design (Note: we will discuss the use of Content Management Systems in future articles in this series).
Should organizations and businesses insist on using social networking systems to further their cause or to solicit new business, they must do so with the knowledge that a significant proportion of potential users will not be able to access their content. Organizations that are required by law or policy to ensure their web presence is accessible should avoid the use of these sites and find alternative methods for delivering content to constituents.
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