Struggling to Simplify Accessibility

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An issue that keeps coming up in accessibility discussions if how we can simplify it, but the goal remains elusive, and will probably remain so. I think there is a way it can be done, but you have to understand why it's complex in the first place.

Accessibility is Difficult Because....

One way in which accessibility differs from other technology standards is that the focus is on satisfying human needs versus machine needs. The goal of an XML standard is machine readability, but humans aren't as simple as machines. Humans are not only more complex, but also more varied and you can't just "read their spec", but have to make educated guesses about your audience. This is why issues like usability, accessibility and even learning are so thorny - it's all about the human brain.

Another challenge is that your accessibility audience is varied by design. Right now, we are focusing on the visually impaired audience on screen readers, but when video was coming on the scene in a big way, the audience in focus was hearing impaired. The truth is that both audiences need to be served along with those with motion impairments and cognitive disabilities. This seems complex, but it's the same issue that faces any Gen Ed course at Penn State which may need to serve people of all ages and from all backgrounds. It can be done.

A third challenge is the variety of technologies that need to be accessified. Ten years ago, we worried about HTML a lot, but now we have media, dynamic web services and mobile devices. Right now almost all of it is designed without considering accessibility (that's why lawsuits continually pop up).

And this leads to the final challenge - diversity in training needs. I think one issue with a lot of accessibility info is that it's geared either for techies who need to know it all, but can understand the code snippets out there or for administrators who need to understand the issues, but won't directly make the fixes. I think what's missing is information for those posting content with modern tools (the ones you don't need HTML for). There are steps these content providers need to make, but it can't be too technical or time consuming...or it will never happen.

One Solution

Believe it or not, if you are working with just one set of tools (e.g. PowerPoint or video production), your to-dos are fairly small and simple. Videos need captions, some descriptions for the visually impaired and fed through a player which supports keyboard commands. PowerPoints need titles on slides, descriptions of images (preferably ALT tags) and decent color contrast/font selection.

This reminds me of the Unicode problem (foreign characters on the Web). When I began investigating foreign language on the Web years ago, I began by explaining general principles, then advising people to look up what they needed in tables.

Many, many blank stares later, I realized that people needed a way to find the specific information for their specific problem. I created pages for specific languages and additional pages just for Web masters who could handle some of the encoding theory. I don't claim to have the perfect navigational system yet, but I can honestly say I've been able to filter out information for many people fairly well.

I'm now thinking the same may be true for accessibility. Not everyone at Penn State will need to understand all of the WCAG 2.0, but we may be able to help them understand the fixes that need to be done for specific tools and maybe why it's important. The Accessibility Site from University of Minnesota does this pretty well and it's been suggested that we emulate that.

Other Solutions

Another piece of the puzzle I'm hoping will fall in is better tools for the mid-techie. I've commented/complained before that too many tools for accessibility assume that you are a "specialist" familiar with HTML and the advanced tools of Acrobat or Microsoft Office. In reality though, "content" is being created by just about everyone, including very busy instructors and grad students. It would be nice if more tools integrated accessibility like Dreamweaver does.

And...I am waiting for accurate speech recognition and better reading algorithms from screen readers, but this requires some hardcore theoretical linguistics. Who knew.

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