February 2011 Archives

Accessibility: An Unhidden Long Desc for an Image

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If you have an image on a Web page, it's recommended that you include an ALT tag for screen readers, but what if your image is a complex concept map?

The standard answer is to include a link to a longer description as in these engineering diagrams.

But you don't always have to hide the long description from the sighted. A principle of Universal Design is to include the benefits of accessibility for everyone. You can have perfect vision, but still not understand the diagram, so why not include a description that everyone can access?

One example I did was for a portfolio concept map. I have a typical concept map/site architecture diagram, but I also rendered it as a text outline which may be more usable by a writer used to outlines as well as to the visually impaired. Another benefit was that I could convert the text to links pointing to more information. While I could have added hot spot links to the diagram, but then I would have had to accessify that as well and considered usability. Text is so mercifully quick and cheap. All I had to add to the image was an ALT tag saying that the image matches the text outline.

The thing I like about the Universal Design concept is that I feel that my "accommodations" really can work for everyone. I'm happy to implement technology for someone using a screen reader, but it's even more satisfying to add accommodations that benefit multiple audiences. Everyone is included that way in one audience.

Update Another Unhidden Long Desc

Another time I had to generate a long description was to describe the history of modern English dialects . This time the description is in the "Text Version" section. An additional reason NOT to hide a long description is that it could benefit whoever doesn't understand the diagram. That is, there may be sighted people not entirely comfortable with diagrams would prefer to see the information described as text.

Some Key Accessibility and Captioning Resources

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I was going to make a list, but I realized I could point you to some pre-existing lists I have already created at http://blogs.tlt.psu.edu/projects/accessibilitydemo/links.html.

If you are especially concerned about captions, you may also want to see http://webstandards.psu.edu/content/some-captioning-how-tos

I am Not an Attorney - Can I say anything about Accessibility?

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One of the most frustrating aspects of the accessibility situation at Penn State has been the inability to say anything concrete because of the legal situation. Not only can I not comment specifically about the case, but I can't always give concrete advice. At Penn State, we're waiting for word on critical details so we can give concrete advice at some point.

But there's actually been a lot happening behind the scenes. The change in Penn State Policy A.D. 25 requiring marketing videos to be captioned has added more fuel to the fire. The NFB is forcing us to examine issues for visually impaired users, but it's important to remember that accessibility is about multiple audiences.

And there have been discussions (lots and lots) and one theme that has emerged is how we will be able to deploy accessibility training. This is tricky because there are multiple audiences and each has its own skills and needs. The other tricky part is the number of technology applications this touches on. But we're starting to get some events on the books, and I hope they help.

Accessibility has traditionally concerned itself with static Web pages, but the NFB complaint has actually addressed services like ANGEL, services from the Libraries and other services - some of which are not entirely under our control. The problem isn't the Web, but what we're plugging into the Web. If you're getting dizzy, you're not alone.

Some Interim Advice

I'm not an attorney, but I will give some advice I think makes sense.

  1. Incorporate accessibility into any technology initiative NOW. Doing accessibility one piece at a time is really not that bad. The retrofit, on the other hand, can be a killer. It's one of the reasons accessibility has been feared. The sooner you think accessibility, the less retrofitting you will have to do in the long run.
  2. Think audience, not technology. When encountering a new tech, put yourself in your audience's shoes. Any technology relying on audio will need captions or transcripts. Any tech relying on visuals will need to be translated into text somehow (and so will the software controls). Anyone having problems moving a mouse will need assistance (often keyboard shortcuts). Color coding has to work even if you don't have normal color vision. Once you think in these terms, the rules make more sense.

  3. Think information, not aesthetics. It's difficult if not impossible to convey the sensation of a Monet painting or Beethoven's 5th in words, but that doesn't mean there isn't any important important to be extracted. A description of a painting could focus on the images or an important detail depicted in the image. Similarly a description of a piece of music could focus on rhythm, lyrics or some other aspect of the music.
  4. Accessibility Benefits Everyone. It's kind of a cheesy slogan, but it does address the PR problem for accessibility is that the target audience seems so small. But ALT tags are excellent when an image fails to download, and captions are equally good when the audio is muddled or plain not working. I personally gravitate to larger text because I'm not quite up to bifocals yet and keyboard shortcuts because I'm holding off carpal tunnel.
  5. Panic, but move on. I'll be honest and admit that my first reaction to accessibility was "Ugh!", but then I moved on, and I'm glad I did. It really has made me a better designer and I have seen tangible benefits of accessibility accommodation in my life.

Will everything NEED to be accessible? The scope is certainly under debate, and I admit that there's a good chance that your personal blog will probably NOT be subject accessibility guidelines.

However, the wider your potential audience, the more likely you may be impacted by accessibility issues, if not today, then some time down the road. Just saying...

Skype and the Snow Day

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In September 2009, we discussed how to plan a virtual class for a flu epidemic, but in Feb 2010, I realized the same concepts could be used for a snow day as well (and TLT thought it was a brilliant concept too).

There are some great suggestions at the link above, but I found my own twist, thanks to my linguistics students. I had been planning to hold a session in Adobe Connect, but the students weren't sure what that meant. Fortunately one said "Oh you mean Skype in", and I thought "Why yes, Skype is a good option." When I asked students if they had a Skye account, they all said they did, so I decided to go with it.

To get to the details, I asked students to e-mail me their Skype IDs so I could add them to my Contacts list. On the day and time when we normally would meet in class, I sat in a Rider conference room and initiated a conference call. I was also able to use Adobe Connect for screen sharing without audio. The only quirk was that I wanted to show a video, and because the audio wasn't coming through Skype, students couldn't hear anything. Something to work on for next time.

Interestingly, I ran one session as a "test", but this week we ran it for real. This time I had some "guest speakers" from ETS, but we were able to sit in a conference room and use my Mac laptop speakers/mike and it still worked well. Of course, a lot of our activities are hands on in the lab, so I am actually crossing fingers that I won't have to do this again.

But it's great to have one more option to work with.

P.S. Thanks to all our guest speakers for participating in the session. It was a very interesting discussion for me. Hope to share details soon, but I have to check with the students first...