Friday, August 06, 2004

Reading :: Building Accessible Websites

Originally posted: Fri, 06 Aug 2004 17:25:59

Building Accessible Websites

by Joe Clark

The first book on web accessibility I ever read, Slatin and Rush's Maximum Accessibility, was a life-changing experience. It knocked me out of my comfort zone and made me realize that even my Spartan, text-only, fast-loading pages were a nightmare for people with visual disabilities or repetitive stress injuries. In fact, I'll be using that book in the fall, so I'm sure I'll review it soon.

That lightning bolt moment typically happens only once. So when I read Clark's book, which was recommended by a CWRL staffer, it was with some existing awareness of accessibility challenges. Building Accessible Websites didn't change my life, but it did help me to think about accessibility in different ways. Like Maximum Accessibility, it explains the reasoning behind Section 508 and WCAG 1.0 guidelines and shows how to conform to them. But unlike that book, Building Accessible Websites takes a very critical stance toward the authors of these standards, a stance that I'm sure Clark characterizes as "irreverent" but that I would call "frequently vicious." Clark is quite free in pointing out what he considers to be the stupidities and shortsightedness of the existing guidelines and tools. Although this attitude can be wearing, it does highlight the divergences between principles and execution, and helped me to critically review the results of the accessibility checkers I've been using.

This book would perform a helpful but limited service if its main function were just to criticize standards. But Clark goes farther, showing other ways to ease compliance. The most helpful section for me was on navigation: Clark discusses how web designers can take advantage of different layouts, different HTML tags, and different CSS features to ensure that those with visual or motor disabilities can still navigate one's pages easily. This practical advice was given with clear caveats related to different browsers and their different levels of support for the current HTML and CSS standards. In fact, this realist back-and-forth between HTML standards and actual browser capabilities is something that shows up throughout the book and that makes the book especially valuable.

The book comes with a CD-ROM for those who want to access exercises, examples, or (more to the point) the text in an electronic, screen-readable form. It could have benefited quite a bit from heavy editing -- Clark has the habit of making indefensibly strong statements, then qualifying them in a flurry of metadiscourse, and I get the impression that the book was written during a manic phase -- but it reads quickly. Check it out.

Clarification (2007.01.10): "Manic phase" is an overstatement, as Joe points out in the comments. The writing is exuberant, moves quickly, and ranges far.

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