The web is inherently accessible

I originally created Accessible Web as a sarcastic reaction to a developer changing his website to require users to disable JavaScript to use it. The reactions on Twitter were hilarious! So many angry developers didn’t get the joke that they do the same thing when they require users to have JavaScript enabled to do anything on their websites.

I decided to create something similar but with CSS. And with a message about semantic HTML. I’ve recreated the experience below.

Accessible Web - please disable CSS to view this website

Whew! That’s better. So guess what?

The web is inherently accessible

Your weekly reminder that the web is accessible by default and it’s our design decisions that stop it being accessible #a11y

— k.mar (@Kevmarmol_CT) on Twitter on December 7, 2020

Why did you have to disable CSS to view this website? No reason other than a design choice that excludes sighted people.

Did you know? This is how many visitors “view” webpages already:

  • Search engines
  • Bots
  • Site crawlers
  • Analytics
  • Blind people

This webpage is fully accessible to people with screen readers and Braille displays. But many websites are not due to poor design choices that exclude some people.

What is web accessibility?

When a page is accessible, it was developed with the intention of working for as many people with disabilities as possible. A good place to start learning is the W3C’s Introduction to Web Accessibility. Find out the different ways people with disabilities interact with the web.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

WCAG is a set of success criteria for determining if a page is accessible, led by four guiding principles:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

These contain guidelines and a hierarchy of success criteria from Level A to Level AAA. Many accessibility laws, and current best practice, point to WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance. There are 50 discrete success criteria to evaluate, though many are not applicable to all pages. For example, if a page doesn’t contain video, you don’t have to evaluate against success criteria for captions or audio descriptions.

See the full list of success criteria

Did you know? The WCAG guidelines were first published in 1999. Web accessibility is not a new concept but a lot of people are learning about it only now.

Semantics

So what’s the point? The point is to develop accessible pages from the bottom up, starting with semantic HTML. A whole lot of developers think they know HTML but are actually pretty sloppy about it. Many don’t think it matters if they use a link or a button, but it does. Every semantic mistake introduces accessibility issues into your code. If you’ve never really “learned” HTML, check out this beginner’s guide to writing good HTML.

By far, CSS color contrast issues are the most frequent accessibility issues I see, but the HTML ones are problematic too. Outlined below are the top HTML-related accessibility issues I encounter.

Headings

If you visually scan this page, you can quickly see how it is broken up into sections. That’s due to using headings or the h1-h6 elements. It’s important that every page have at least one h1 so people and search engines know what the topic of the page is. From there, cascade down to h2, h3, and so on.

Did you know? People using screen readers can navigate by headings in much the same way that sighted people can visually scan the page for items of importance.

Form labels

Every input needs a label. It’s really that simple. And best practice is to make that label visible. This helps people remember what information they’ve entered. Programmatically link each pair using the for attribute on the label matching the id attribute on the input.

This enables a couple things:

  • People can now click or tap on the label to give focus to the input. This is especially useful for checkboxes and radio buttons that often have small hit areas.
  • People using screen readers will now hear the label announced when the input is in focus.
<label for="like-cats">
<input type="checkbox" id="like-cats">Please confirm that you love cats</label>

Let people know when a field is required by adding the required attribute to inputs. Many modern browsers do cursory form field validation.

<form action="">
  <label for="cat-email">Cat's Email *</label>
  <input type="email" id="cat-email" required>
  <button>Submit</button>
 </form>

Buttons and links

Buttons and links seem very similar to some developers but they have very different semantic uses. Buttons are used for controls on a page, such as a form submit or toggle, while links are used for navigation, literally for linking to another page. If you use them interchangeably, people can get confused about what a button or link is going to do when activated.

Some people try to make their own custom buttons instead of using the <button> element, which is already accessible:

  • <button> is keyboard focusable
  • <button> is activated with enter and space keys

Tables

There are many legitimate uses for tables on the web but they are often coded incorrectly. Much as an input needs its label, a table data cell needs its table header. This allows the applicable table header to be read by a screen reader before the table data cell contents. Additionally, each table needs a <caption> that provides a description of the table contents to people using assistive technologies

About My Cats
Cat’s nameCat’s color
Lunatorbie
Stellanblack and white

Images

The one thing about accessibility most people know is that images need alt text. This may seem straightforward but let’s look at three examples.

1) Alt text matters

Semantically speaking, every image needs an alt="" attribute. This alone will pass an automated accessibility checker. If an image is purely decorative, you can even leave the alt value empty. But if an image provides context to the content, the alt text must accurately describe the content of the image for people who cannot see it. The alt text for the image below is two cats on an easy chair under a blanket.

two cats on an easy chair under a blanket
2) SVG

SVG doesn’t support the alt attribute. Instead, add a <title> element inside the <svg> element with the alternative text description. Add the attribute role="img" to the <svg> element to tell assistive technologies that it’s a graphic.

<svg role="img">
<title>universal access logo</title>
<image
width="300"
height="300"
id="universal-access-logo"
transform="matrix(0.4135 0 0 0.4135 0 0)"
xlink:href="data:image/png;base64,svg-data"></image></svg>
3) Charts and maps

Any time you display complicated information, provide a robust description of the key points of the map or chart. All people will benefit from this for reference. No matter how you mark this up— using <figcaption> or just a <p> element—give that description an id. The description for the image has id="cat-map".

On the <img> element, add the attribute aria-describedby="cat-map". This programmatically connects the image with the description for assistive technologies.

Remember to include the alt attribute with a short explanation of the image. Alt text for the image below is a cat sitting on a bed that is divided up into areas.

a cat sitting on a bed that is divided up into areas
Cat bed, never used. Pillows show wake for food here and purring zone. Other areas on the bed are listed as grooming salon, sleeping area, launch pad to the bedside table, parlor, heaving spot, napping quarters, meditation area, stretching area, yoga studio, and good attack zone. A black cat sits happily in the middle of the bed.

Thanks for reading! Happy accessibility testing.

Colophon

This site was inspired by Heydon’s JavaScript site

You can catch me on Twitter @racheleditullio

Source: Accessible Web About page

Grad School Statement of Intent

Hello readers! Today I came across my grad school statement of intent that I had to submit with my application to the UT iSchool in 2008. I updated it in 2012 when I added it as part of my academic portfolio.

screenshot of the home page of my academic portfolio website from grad school

In my cube at work, I have a very prominent sign with a motto by web designer Mark Wyner that reads

Visual-design integrity for people with modern devices and browsers, and information integrity for everyone else.

As a web developer, I think what lies underneath the presentation layer is the most important part of any web page. While visual design is necessary and increases usability for many users of information, it cannot and should not supersede a solid informational foundation. I am a strong proponent of Web standards, semantic markup, and accessibility for all and I believe that studying and learning at the School of Information has allowed me to better understand the ideals of data organization for which I already have a passion, ultimately making me a better web creator.

I thrive on organization, naming conventions, and process, all of which have helped me in my career as a web developer.  I have been very interested in learning about structuring data to make it optimally usable by both humans and machines, independent of the delivery method.  I want to go beyond the page level, beyond markup, and begin to classify knowledge and make it accessible to all.  I want to create information hierarchies that are easily understood so that the data can be found and used anywhere it is needed. My interests have revolved particularly around information architecture and increasing accessibility for deaf users. Whenever possible, I have chosen to pursue research assignments that have furthered my knowledge in these areas.

Until recently, I struggled to put a name to this area of study that I see as crucial for me to become the kind of professional I want to be.  When I learned that programs existed for information architecture, I felt as if I had finally found my “tribe.”  For me, specializing in information architecture is all about consolidating the wide breadth of knowledge I have around web development into a single path. I am enjoying the beginnings of my journey down that path and focusing my learning on the organization of data, usability of that data, and hope to eventually help form standards and best practices for the field. Much of my coursework has provided a solid foundation in this field and allowed me to get closer to finding my niche in user interface design and the user’s experience with information retrieval.

Through my graduate studies, I have gained an improved understanding of how users interact with information as well as the systems storing that data and the programs allowing users access to it. Another area that interests me is human factors and thus far in my career, I have had few chances to talk with users to measure their success (or frustration) with websites. Eager to learn more about the human factors aspect when designing and developing systems, I took a course on usability. It gave me a chance to design and conduct my own usability study, allowing me to observe firsthand how people approach using a website. Through these observations, I was able to make well-informed suggestions for improvement based on empirical research, not just my gut feelings about how a site should be designed.

During my career, I have made huge, personal strides towards creating more usable websites. In early 2007 I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s book Designing with Web Standards and it changed my outlook on the building of websites, opening my eyes to a new way of looking at information access. It was the first tangible explanation I had seen for structuring the data of web pages separate from the presentation layer. His work introduced me to the pure CSS coding method and taught me the concept of “semantic markup” which informs my work today. His book also led me to start studying accessibility practices and striving to make information available to all visitors, regardless of browser, device, or disability. I believe earning a Master of Science in Information Studies (MSIS)  will allow me to deepen this knowledge and understanding about what makes for good design, and that will benefit many people.

Using the tools I have acquired from studying information architecture at UT Austin, I want to move beyond being a “code-monkey,” plain and simple. I want to be at the genesis of projects, helping large organizations, such as government or academic institutions, determine the best courses of action for managing their data and creating user-friendly interfaces for retrieval of that data. I want to influence how organizations structure and maintain their information as well as influence the interface through usability testing and interviews. I want to get beyond just being the one who implements designs to being someone who helps create and define those designs with the user in mind.

I view the completion of my MSIS degree as a great beginning, one that will provided the tools and foundation that will truly create a jumping off point for me and my career. I not only learned how to organize information in more intuitive ways or how to better help users interact with information; I also gained new concepts and insights as a web professional. I know I have a lot to offer and I believe this degree will open amazing doors for me, providing the knowledge to create great designs that are usable, accessible, and have a solid base in information architecture.

Caught in the Web

I recently came across this paper about the Internet that I wrote during my second semester of college. Enjoy!

collage of many computer-related pictures and terms
Caught in the Web cover collage

For many, the Internet no longer exists as a pastime. Its presence has ceased to be a venue for occasional research and frolic. Online services have succeeded in capturing the minds and attentions of a new group of computer user, driving them to the edge. Yet, this phenomenon remains to the ignorant, unknowing, computer-illiterate majority a farce. To much of society, the net junkie is just a low-life computer geek. I argue that the extend of one’s computer knowledge no longer determines who could and does fall prey to the “siren song of the browser” (Dern 93) as the net is an addiction. Addiction being a medical term, I reason for the acceptance of netaholics as suffers of a serious, potentially life-destroying disorder.

The idea of Internet addiction did begin as a joke by New York psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg who posted an electronic message with a list of mock symptoms including involuntary, typing movements of the fingers, psychomotor agitation, anxiety and withdrawal at removal from the net for an extenuated period of time (Goldberg). However, many people responded that they do in fact exhibit these symptoms. Goldberg claims many people use the net because of a lack of social skills and especially to avoid problems in their lives (Garrison 20).

And hence, the addition rears its ugly head. As with any substance abuse problems or addictions, it is used to escape the troubles of the here and now. I spend nearly 99% of my time on the net as an escape from reality as do many of the friends I have met online. For hours on end, we stare at our monitors like many dead fish, absorbed in a fantasy role-playing game (RPG), DragonRealms. With the office door closed and our fingers clicking away at the keyboard, why bother to worry about fighting with our parents, our jobs or school work? We can become who we want to be; at least for the few hours we spend together in the evenings. And truth of the matter, I think we all know more people online than we do in real life! It is so much easier to speak with people when you do not have to look them in the eye or be yourself.

Much like alcohol or drugs, once one gets hooked, one needs more and more to find satisfaction. When most people first start using the Internet, also deemed one’s “newbie days,” initially they spend a long time trying to see everything at once. For most, this fascination wears off when they discover the net is either not for them or they become frustrated. For others, like myself, our time on the net increases because a three-hour hit is no longer enough for us to get a fix. Over the months, I’ve found myself drifting from signing on maybe an hour at a time every couple of days to spending an average of six or more hours daily at my terminal. The web is no longer a toy to us, but a place. As the founder of the Internet Addiction Association (IAA) states, “To the average non-internet user, ‘Cyberspace’ is nothing more than a mass of unorganized data, but to Netaholics, like myself, Cyberspace is viewed as a second home” (IAA). We can’t live without it because we live in it.

But all of this is not enough to deem excessive Internet use an addiction. I mean, plenty of people spend extensive time reading, bowling and watching soap operas. According to Viktor Brenner, a doctoral candidate of psychology at SUNYBuffalo, “Time spent in and of itself is not an indicator. It’s when spending that time becomes so engrossing that other things are ignored—then there’s a problem” (Pappas 28). Corporations face the problem every day of employees who spend more time surfing the net for their own enjoyment than working. Students spend study time hopping from web page to web page. Families become neglected and responsibilities ignored. This is when it all truly becomes an addiction, when the net controls your time and not you. The advent of personal Internet accounts that are unrelated to employment or school further enable those with enough stamina to spend hours and even days online, sometimes disconnecting barely enough to eat or sleep (Dern 94). I’ve lost nearly eight pounds as I have switched my sustenance from food to feeding off the net, and my parents believe the keyboard to be a prosthetic limb. (What do they look like again?)

photo of a guy in front of a computer monitor showing a graph of what employees are spending their time doing on the web. Number one is pornography.
What are employees doing on the web?

All in all, anyone can fall victim to the seductive time sinks of the net. Many people just get distracted and do not know when to stop. I believe it has almost nothing to do with whether one is a webmaster or a newbie because the net controls you psychologically. Brenner recently conducted a study based on a questionnaire he posted on the web. Out of 200 usable responses he reports, “The skewed distribution of scores supports the existence of a subgroup…whose Internet usage caused them more deficits in role functioning than the norm” (Dern 96). In other words, we do exist! I have heard so many sob stories from my cyberpals from those who cannot pay the rent this month because they have missed too much work due to extended net time to others who will simply not work or go to school because they cannot pull themselves away. Many of the people with whom I speak over the net are at work and not working. Statistical evidence from Brenner’s study includes that 30 percent of respondents have tried to cut down on their usage but have sorely failed (been there, done that), while 12 percent said virtually all the people they consider friends are online (“Whatever” 25).

I have yet to end up at the stage where I am running from phone booth to phone booth, searching for a place to plug in my laptop and sign-on because I have been evicted and lost my job. But please, they are out there, and they need help. Instead of discarding people with Internet Addiction Disorder, recognize that they need something to pull them away. When my parents or friends nag me about being on the net for hours and hours, that they never see me anymore, do you think that makes me want to come out and sign-off?! No. This is my escape, and frankly, I do not want to get off. WE need support groups for netaholics, not harsh words. We stay in our little electronic world of silicon, pixelated faces and flashing text voices because this is our safety zone. The world is cold and harsh, especially when all we get is hell because most people just don’t understand. Hug a netaholic; do not push one away because the Internet and the thought of the whole world going to computers scares you out of your wits. We’re scared too, but we’re ready.

Works Cited

Dern, Daniel P. “Just one more Click…” Computer World 8 Jul. 1996: 30(28) :93-96.

Garrison, Jayne, Patricia Long. “Getting off the Superhighway.” Health Oct. 1995: 9(6) :20-22.

Goldberg, Ivan. Internet Addiction Disorder. Online. Dialog.

Internet Addiction Association. Online. Dialog. 3 Mar. 1996.

Pappas, Charles. “Hooked on the Net.” Home Office Computing Jun. 1996: 14(6): 28.

“Whatever Happened to Face-to-Face Interface?” Men’s Fitness Sep. 1996: 25.