May 2011 Archives

Globalization Starts at Home?

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The topic of Globalization has come up recently, and I wanted bring some of my past experiences to the conversational table (since I don't want to waste my experiences teaching the nuances of sociolinguistic reality to Penn State undergrads).

I was looking through my notes for some good overall readings, but one that struck me was a note on a book from 1981 called the The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau. I think Mom got it at an AAUW book sale, but it was quite engrossing and quite a good read.

Garreau's thesis is that culturally speaking, Anglo America is really nine mini-nations which each have their own values and cultural orientation. The big insight here is that the nine nations cross national borders, and that states are often split between these mini nations.

For instance, he places southern Florida (including Miami) in with the Caribbean (hence the famous adage that "Miami is the capital of Latin America") and also places much of the Southwest in the nation "Mexiamerca". The north is no different with his "New England including Nova Scotia as well as Maine" and the "Breadbasket" going from Texas through Alberta.

And California? It's in at least three different nations depending on where you are. Easterners though only really know the ones based in Los Angeles and San Francisco and may forget the parts close to Nevada. One can quibble with his exact divisions, but I still think the generalization stands that we don't realize how different we are regionally, and based on several conversations, I have had, I doubt many non-Americans do either, and it can make the conversation about "who we are" tricky.

There are some good discussions about how the values of the nations come into conflict at points of contact (e.g. the different regions of Florida) in ways we don't really fully appreciate. For instance, a policy that may make sense in a large city may seem ridiculous in a small town and vice-versa.

I would say that the same lesson applies to other parts of the world. We often speak about the values or issues of "Africa", "Asia" or "Europe", but the truth is that these regions are just as diverse as the nine+ plus nations of North America. Islamic North Africa of the deserts is extremely different from more southern post-colonial parts of Africa and have been for millennia. The history of Ethiopia is not the same as Tanzania. How do we help our students understand this? That is a HUGE challenge.

The other thing I like about this book is that Garreau respects all the quirks of the nations from the Cuban families maintaining strong Latin American cultural ties to the dreamers of the "Left Coast" who may drive some more pragmatic Easterners a little batty. It's this kind of wry affection that can help you learn to understand and love your crazy neighbor a little more.

Happy Thoughts from JAWS Camp

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Last week, I attended a very intense two-day JAWS screenreader hands on training session provided by Freedom Scientific, the maker of JAWS and other related products. As one might expect, this was a very intense session, but also invaluable for helping me understand the needs of that community and which "fixes" are absolutely vital.

Must Have: Image ALT Tag

The ALT tag remains one of the most important devices to be implemented. In fact, the instructor spent a lot of time on not using it, but explaining good vs. bad ALT tags. An ALT tag should descriptive, but doesn't have to describe every color, position and effect in the image. Nor does it have to say "image of" because JAWS announces every image as "graphic" (I know because I heard it a lot).

For instance, it's important to know if an image is a logo and what the logo is (e.g. Penn State, NBC...) If it's a link, then the destination is important to note (e.g. Penn State Home Page). However, it's not necessary to convey the color and style of the logo in most cases.

Must Have: Headers and Subheaders

A guideline that isn't always publicized is the the use of H1/H2/...H6 tags in a Web page. These provide important landmarks that visitors use to navigate between sections of pages. For instance, if you hit a news site and want to scan headlines and sections, making them headers speeds up the process enormously.

Without headers, visitors with screen readers will have to read the entire page line by line. You can pass an accessibility checker this way, but your customers will NOT thank you for it. (Just like it's a lot harder to read an entire page of 12 point text).

Less Important: Header Nesting

It's a good idea to nest levels (i.e. 1 H1, then H2 then H3...), but even if they are not nested, a screen reader user can still take advantage of any header in the page.

Must Have: LABEL Tag for Form Controls

How does a visually impaired user know what to put in to the "Edit" box? It's in the LABEL tag. You can use images (e.g. magnifying glass for "Search") as cues, but the image should have an ALT tag an be embedded in a LABEL tag. You can use default tag in a text field in a control in a pinch, but it's not as clear as a LABEL tag.

By the way, you can add help text outside a LABEL field, but if a user decides to skip from form control to form control, only the LABEL tag will be picked up, so be a little cautious here

Must Have: GO Button

A script which sends you somewhere else as soon as an option is selected is NOT a good idea for a number of reasons. The JAWS user needs to hit each option in order to read it, and the rest of us may be making mistakes. A second GO button is much safer for the JAWS user. To give you an idea of how dangerous autosubmit is, we found out the hard way that a bus company will switch you to their Spanish page via autosubmit.

Must Have: TH for Table Headers

The descriptors for columns and rows should be in TH cells and should be on the very top and left. JAWS will be able to read the column (and row) name for any cell depending on

Also Horrific: ROWSPAN

Every Web designer has been tempted to collapse cells via colspan or rowspan, but if you collapse cells vertically (via rowspan), particularly the leftmost column, you will find that a whole bunch of rows begin with "blank". Not pretty.

I would also avoid COLSPAN, but it's not quite as bad in most cases.

Less Important: SCOPE

JAWS does not appear to actively the "scope=row/col" attribute for simple tables, but they are still a good backup. I would also add a CAPTION tag for every table and SUMMARY for many tables.

Must Have: Unique Link Names

Using "Click Here" or "Read More" instead of more descriptive names like "Accessibility" or "Read More about Accessibility" may seem minor, but again links are good navigation points on some sites, particularly a home page or site map. Repetitive links remove another set of useful shortcuts that visitors on screenreaders rely on.

We ran into one news site which had no headings and only "Read More" links. The navigational shortcuts completely failed and the only way to get any information would be to read it line by line. With many news sites, this is very tedious.

Less Important: STRONG tag over B

People argue about which to use from a standards perspective, but the truth is that JAWS doesn't recognize either of them by default. The same is true for I/EM. This is a little scary actually since we normally use these to highlight items such as warnings, but a header could be just as effective here

Other Lessons

There were some good lessons I learned including:

  1. You can pass a standards and accessibility report and still not be a screen-reader friendly page. I am moving more towards supplementing my accessibility reports with manual checks and JAWS checks.
  2. I need to revamp some of my "accessible" pages.
  3. I'm still to chicken to turn off my monitor and use just a screen reader.

But, I think the most surprising lesson is that I really loved some of JAWS keyboard shortcuts. If I could disable the voice, I would love to be able to call up a list of headers and tab down through them. It's a lot faster than moving the mouse. I already tab through form fields and use as many keyboard shortcuts as I can (pre-carpal tunnel makes you do that). This is more of the same.