Friday, September 24, 2004

Reading :: Maximum Accessibility

Originally posted: Fri, 24 Sep 2004 20:12:55

Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone

by John M. Slatin, Sharron Rush

I've been coding websites since 1994, and I've always been concerned about simplicity and elegance. Where others used graphics, I used none; where others used GIFs for spot color, I used colored tables. My pages loaded quickly, scaled well, and were primarily text. So when I taught my first usability course at UT in fall 2002, I was confident that my stripped-down course site would pass muster in terms of accessibility. Then I read this book.

It's not often that a book is a life-changing experience. But this one changed forever the way I see websites and web development. And as I quickly, frantically began to recode my own site to better comply with accessibility guidelines (you can see that first effort at accessible design here), I also began to understand the uneasy relationship between structural markup and visual presentation -- and how vital it is to get down exactly how to mediate that relationship.

Before we get into exactly why this book is life-changing, let me note that John Slatin is my colleague and sometimes collaborator, and Sharron Rush is someone with whom I've discussed research. Both are great people, and perhaps that fact colors this review. But even if it weren't true, this book is really quite strong. The first half offers narrative accounts of different common problems that disabled users have with website features: graphics, tables, text rendering, plug-ins, pop-up windows, frames, and forms. The second half offers best practices for dealing with these issues. Both halves describe accessibility guidelines in a way that's easy to understand, and emphasize that the best solution is a single design that is entirely accessible while still being attractive and usable for those who are not disabled. Separate but equal, Slatin and Rush emphasize, wasn't a good solution in 1963 and isn't a good one now.

And that's really the crux of the book. More than offering an understanding of accessibility challenges, more than offering how-tos, the book makes a compelling argument that accessibility is a civil rights issue and that we must attend to it morally and ethically, not just in terms of regulations (although regulations are also a concern). Just as we provide curb cuts and ramps in our buildings, we should provide accessibility measures on our websites. And, the authors are quick to point out, such measures benefit everyone: just as curb cuts serve anyone who has to use a wheeled device (from wheelchairs to hand trucks), accessible sites serve anyone who has to use a website (from those with screen readers to those using text-only browsers to those using handheld devices and news aggregators). This book, and my continued discussions with Slatin, are what have led me to emphasizing accessibility in the CWRL and to explore its possibilities in my own development work. (My current website is a testbed for accessibility measures, among other things.)

To enact this civil rights focus, Slatin and Rush provide really remarkable insights, examples, and suggestions for redesign. The book is easy to read and follow, even for those without much HTML experience -- like my current students, who have just finished reading it for my accessibility and usability class. I'm happy to report that the book serves as a good textbook as well as provoking interesting class discussions -- discussions that mirror the ones you'll have with yourself as you read the book and imagine what it's like to use adaptive technologies.

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