Is Wordle Too Holistic for Accessibility?

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An interesting debate in the accessibility community was whether it made sense to accessify the artistic tag cloud service This is a service which converts text from either a Web page or a pasted text into an artistically rendered tag cloud like the one below based on the Penn State Education Technology Services Homepage

ETSWordle.png. Important keywords = digital (6), students (5), understanding, Internet

As you can see the output is an abstract art piece composed of all the keywords from the text laid out in a jigsaw pattern. Some are horizontal, some vertical and all are different sizes. You can choose fonts, color schemes, and layout segments. Is this worth accessifying? Note that gallery images don't even include a basic ALT tag.

When asked about making an accessible version of Wordle, the developer Jonathan Feinberg and others stated that since the output was abstract art, creating a non-visual representation was irrelevant. This is an interesting counter argument because even accessibility experts recommend blank descriptions for decorative images on a Web page.

But is Wordle output completly visual? Not really because the output is extracting the list of words from the Web page, and further makes the more frequently words larger. If you click on the Edit, you will find an option to open a list of words found, copy the list and paste into another file. This is fairly close to being accessible...assuming the screen reader can process the Java menus.

Still when these facts were pointed out to Feinberg, his argument was that the visual aesthetic impact was most important, and thus makes accessibility irrelevant (at least for screen readers). More importantly, it would require him to recode the entire site to make the lists for older items available (now I think we discover the truth).

But are beauty and accessibility incompatible? First, the accessibility community isn't seeking an equivalent aesthetic experience, but an equivalent informational experience. For instance, a text list would tell all users that the second most important word on an educational technology site is "students".

Second - if you were interested in aesthetics, why not match the colors and fonts with tones and voice styles? What would be the abstract tonal possibilities? I remember a seismic monitor of Mount Vesuvius which mapped a tone to seismic vibrations. Normal vibrations made soothing background music, but the stronger the vibrations, the louder the music. It was a perfect match of beauty and information.

What's the upshot? It should be noted that Feinberg developed this as a side project and it's not for profit (right now). He is not really obligated to add any enhancement unless he feels the desire to.

On the other hand...I think Feinberg's comments really show a lack of understanding about accessibility. The accessibility community suggested some alternative representations (the list of words and word counts), but Feinberg commented that either users know about better text analyzers or that a third party take "30 minutes" to implement the code.

Ironically though, Feinberg is willing to make changes to accommodate the quirks of Devanagari and Arabic scripts (not easy). It's a shame that he can't accomodate a simple ALT tag or link to a text file


The wai-ig discussion and overscore blog were painful.

Your opening line here, Elizabeth, asks if it makes sense to accessify the Wordle service. The pages all validate as XHTML 1 Strict. Pretty far along in making the service accessible. The images generated, like all generated images I've ever seen, come without ALT text. Hopefully screen readers will someday be able to read metadata I add to images in Adobe Bridge but currently, adding ALT text to images is the responsibility of the user.

The images are stylistic graphic designs. Yes they were created with text, but their purpose is more than the display of the text. If I use them in a graphic way like I did in my blog I would add suitable ALT text, as I did. I never felt it was Wordle's job to provide that.

Users once debated how much data a photo's ALT text should include; should a person's beard be mentioned if it's unimportant to the sense? How about the style of dress? The breed of dog or type of tree? With the state of the medium, it was always claimed that succinct, appropriate text to convey the same meaning was called for. For some reason, because Wordle images also contain unnecessary but usable data that's in the form of actual words-there seems to be a need to relay all of those words. I think that misses the point of design, the point of Wordle, and the point of accessibility.

Having a list or blog group converge on Jonathan Feinberg as if he's guilty of something, which is basically what was happening, seems like a sad way to advocate for accessible media. Asking him to change or justify his work is just ludicrous. I had conversations-short ones-off list with a couple participants. The individual who brought wai-ig attention to Feinberg's crime works for a company that seems to be in the sort of field that would use Feinberg's service for something other than creating graphics: PrimalFusion is "building an advanced semantic analysis and synthesis platform that will support a range of Internet-scale applications". To me it just sounds like there's something going on here a bit beyond (beneath?) accessibility.

Bottom line, if you use images, use ALT text. Don't expect someone else to put it there.

ELIZABETH J PYATT Author Profile Page said:

Yes, but since Wordle is providing a "Gallery", I would think the developers would have an obligation to provide some ALT tagging other than "". In terms of content for the ALT tag, I follow the rule you include what you would read over the phone to any user.

Again, for Wordle, I think list of top words used would be important.

I do agree that some of the rhetoric against Feinberg has been unjust, partially because this is essentially a hobby for him. On the other hand, I think Feinberg's comments indicates a lack of imagination about his own service.

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