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The Simpsons For The Visually Impaired

May 20, 2005

When explaining web accessibility to the uninitiated I find that it sometimes helps to apply the concept to other mediums. Here’s an example I hadn’t thought of before. Imagine trying to watch The Simpsons without actually watching The Simpsons. Each episode has a million little sight gags and visual clues that fly by so quickly that you practically need a TiVo to keep up.

So how do visually impaired people watch The Simpsons? With the Descriptive Video Service (DVS) of course. DVS is an audio track that explains the action taking place in a television program. With The Simpsons that includes reading all of the oddball signs that fly by during the course of an episode (not to mention Bart’s scribbling on the chalk board at the start of each episode).

WFMU’s station manager Ken has an interesting post about his accidental discovery of the DVS signal while battling with his broken VCR. Like many people, he hadn’t really given any thought to how visually impaired users might watch and enjoy programs like The Simpsons. At first he assumed The Simpsons were doing a parody of Arrested Development.

Ken also makes some interesting observations regarding censorship and editorializing on the DVS track, but that’s probably a topic for another post on another blog.

At any rate, if you’re interested in hearing what the DVS track for The Simpsons sounds like, Ken has posted an entire episode available for download.

posted by kirkb @ 8:53 am under
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Accessible Folksonomies

February 27, 2005

I’ve been working with web technology for over a decade now and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an idea gain mindshare as rapidly as the Folksonomy has. It seems like everywhere I turn someone is discussing this new categorization system.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a folksonomy is basically a taxonomy created by the people and for the people. A community of users collaborates by “tagging” various types of content with user created keywords. This concept is flourishing on a handful of community driven sites that all seem to have a certain addictive quality. I think the best way to fully grasp how folksonomies work is to dive into one of the sites that makes use of the concept. Flickr, 43things, and del.icio.us are good places to start. Given the success of these early experiments in group tagging I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing folksonomies implemented on all sorts of sites in the very near future.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one particular artifact of the folksonomy phenomenon — the folksonomy menu that serves as a sort of buzz index providing users with a quick visualization of the most popular tags (technically I think it’s called a weighted list). Popular tags are displayed in a larger font and it’s relatively easy to identify hot topics at a glance. This visual representation of the popularity of any given tag is undeniably cool. However, once the coolness factor wears off it becomes fairly obvious that these menus are also not very accessible.

I realize these sites are currently trail-blazers and they deserve to be recognized as such. I have no intention of detracting from the innovative work that’s being done. My concern is that once folksonomies enter the mainstream, the next wave of sites implementing them will likely begin a wholesale copying of the work that’s being done by these innovators — markup and all.
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posted by kirkb @ 10:51 pm under
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The Accessibility Challenge

February 2, 2005

We recently completed a large website redevelopment project. The site, when launched, contained nearly 1,000 individual content items. Since launch, that number has grown. We expect it to continue to increase, especially as the departments who took a wait and see attitude start contributing content to the site. If past experience holds true, this site will have close to 5,000 content items within a year or two.

One of the stated goals for the site was accessibilty. Granted, this was not the term used, but as we went through the process of identifying the site’s customers, local senior citizens were mentioned. Because this is a city website, they do not have to comply with Section 508 — however, as many local government agencies choose to do, the city made compliance a goal. Throughout the design process, we kept this in mind, and, because the backend of the site is a content management system, we included “hooks” to ensure things like alt attributes weren’t forgotten.

Okay, fine. Mission accomplished.

Sort of. The day-to-management of the website is handled in a decentralized manner by non-technical staff. The final review before new content is published is done from an an editorial perspective — the webmaster doesn’t know HTML, and the chances of her learning it are slim. When we loaded the original batch of content on behalf of the client, we converted as much as possible to plain HTML. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, not everything could be converted, and there are many documents posted as PDF files.

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Businesses Agree to Make Websites Accessible

August 20, 2004

Yesterday, Elliott Spitzer, Attorney General for the State of New York, announced a settlement where Ramada.com and Priceline.com have agreed to make their websites accessible to the blind. The settlement came because

[t]he Attorney General opined that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that private web sites be accessible to blind and visually impaired Internet users. The ADA generally dictates that all “places of public accommodation” and all “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” of places of public accommodation, must be made accessible to disabled citizens, absent undue hardship. New York law provides similar civil rights protections.

Priceline and Ramada will reimburse the state for its costs as well as make necessary changes to their sites. Priceline has reportedly already begun work to make its website more accessible, and, according to the Washington Post sought to reassure investors that the settlement is not a blow to the company’s bottom line.

[Priceline's Brian] Ek said the firm encourages other firms to do the same. He said the firm isn’t releasing the cost of making the entire site accessible for the visually disabled, but said it won’t be enough to reduce earnings.

Our Analysis of The Settlement

This settlement is particularly interesting in light of a previous ruling that determined the opposite. That case (02-21734-C1V – Access Now/Gumson vs. Southwest Airlines) turned on the fact that the web does not occupy physical space; the judge believed Congress’s specificity in defining public accommodations limited the act to physical space. That Spitzer believed otherwise is precedent setting. As the businesses in question clearly engaged in commercial operations, they can be defined as public accommodations. The Internet was not contemplated when the ADA was written, but in 2000, a Congressional hearing concluded:

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posted by Kassia @ 2:51 pm under
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The Sad State Of Accessibility On Municipal Websites

May 22, 2004

I created my first government website in 1995. In those days the Woody Allen quote was pretty much accurate: 80% of success was just showing up. Having a web site earned a city bragging rights, even if the site was nothing more than a home page with a few links.

As the decade progressed and web authoring tools became commonplace, most cities advanced to the point where they had at least a token web presence. While the sites were primitive when compared to commercial websites, local government saw the Internet as revolutionary. Suddenly there was this great tool that could be used to quickly disseminate all kinds of information to the community. Best of all, the medium was relatively cheap. There was incredible excitement about this new high tech, cost effective information delivery method.

Needless to say, accessibility was not a consideration in the early days of the web. As we discovered in our recent survey of municipal web accessibility, it’s not much of a consideration today, either, despite the pressing needs of each agency’s constituency. Of the 408 California cities we tested, 91% failed to achieve Section 508 compliance. The numbers were nearly as bad for the WCAG guidelines, with 89% of the sites failing to achieve WCAG’s Priority 1.
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posted by kirkb @ 11:00 am under
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The Invisible Web: A Survey Of Municipal Web Accessibility

Alt Tags recently conducted a series of accessibility tests on 408 municipal websites throughout the state of California. Ninety-one percent of the sites tested failed Section 508 compliance. Eight-Nine percent did not pass WCAG Priority 1. While not surprising, our findings were not encouraging. It appears that web accessibility is not yet on the radar of most municipalities.

Our complete report details our findings and recommendations for municipalities wishing to improve the accessibility of their websites. We’re presenting our report in a PDF format and encouraging readers to pass this on to interested parties in hopes that we can raise awareness of this important issue.

posted by kirkb @ 10:59 am under
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Do You Care About Accessibility?

March 31, 2004

It was a moment that is quickly becoming legendary in certain web design circles. The first of many accessibility panels at the 2004 SXSW Interactive conference was well underway when Jeffrey Veen stepped onto the stage just as it was his turn to present. Unexpected travel delays had prevented him from arriving on time for the Accessibility is For Everyone session. As a result, Veen missed the initial presentations by a panel of noted accessibility experts and appeared to walk into the room cold to deliver his portion of the session.

Against a backdrop of hyper sensitivity to accessibility issues Veen steps up and announces, “I don’t care about accessibility.” Veen’s proclamation was met with a few nervous chuckles followed by an uncomfortable moment of silence before he began to build his case.
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posted by kirkb @ 3:22 pm under
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Opera Announces Voice Activated Browser

March 24, 2004

Opera Software has announced a voice-activated browser. The new browser, launch date not yet announced, incorporates IBM’s ViaVoice software and will respond to voice commands from the user. As with other voice recognition programs, the software must be trained to learn the user’s speech patterns and voice. The initial version will be targeted toward the English language market, and Opera predicts the browser will increase accessibility for those individuals with difficulties working a mouse or keyboard.

posted by Kassia @ 12:06 pm under
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Suddenly Accessibility Is Beautiful

March 22, 2004

The HiFi Design with CSS session generated a fair amount of shock and awe at this year’s SXSW conference. The CSS Zen Garden continues to raise awareness of the amazing possibilities that web standards present. Accessibility advocates are awed by the beauty of standards based design and simultaneously shocked that so many leading designers are citing accessibility as one of their primary goals. Suddenly accessibility is cool (and beautiful too). It’s every accessibility advocate’s dream come true, except some of us seem to be sleeping in.
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posted by kirkb @ 7:40 pm under
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Everything Is Usable

March 19, 2004

When you get right down to it, the goal of accessible website development is to ensure that your entire site is usable. By everyone. By everything.

Okay, maybe not everything. Human and machine. We’ll leave the rocks and minerals to sort out their own computing issues.

So why is this important? Well, a usable site gets used. Sounds like I’m stating the obvious, doesn’t it? If you’ve spent more than five minutes on the Web, you’ll realize I’m not. Setting aside the issue of accessibility (which I believe is a big part of usability), most sites are designed without the end user in mind. The focus is on…well, I don’t know what the focus is; all I can assume is that the person trying to access, buy, or read the site wasn’t considered by the design team.

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posted by Kassia @ 6:18 pm under
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