Web Accessibility is Complicated, ATAG is Necessary



June 05, 2014

Mike Gifford Preseting about ATAG at CodeFest 2014Anyone who has been involved Web Accessibility knows that the basics are quite simple, but that it can get complicated really quickly. Training people to create content that can be perceived by people with varieties of sight, hearing, mobility & cognitive challenges is no small task, and ultimately we all make mistakes.

Most web content now is being created through Content Management Systems, which are helping to simplify the process of producing content. The future seems to be bright for systems that can manage small chunks of data which are assembled on the fly to give users a personalized experience. Content presentation is increasingly being something that is managed programmatically.

Creating accessible web content can similarly be made simpler if content authoring tools checked for common accessibility problems.

Standards, What are the Good For?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is responsible for defining global standards on accessibility, and many people know about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). A draft guideline is being actively developed for authoring tools like Drupal.  The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) is presently only at a Candidate Recommendation and is not a full W3C Recommendation (Web Standard).

At this point in the presentation, the details of web standards puts most people to sleep!

Web heroes like Jeffrey Zeldman have been spearheading the charge for web standards for over 20 years. This isn't something that most of us have the stomach for.  As boring as standards are, they are important.  Without standards, the Internet would be way more chaotic than it already is. No successful web site stands in isolation, the Internet is an ecosystem that works only when sites comply to widly agreed to standards.

ATAG's Two Sections

The people developing ATAG have wisely broken this guideline roughly into: the authoring interface and helping to shape better web content.

It makes sense that the interface authors use doesn't present them with barriers that blocks them from perceiving and operating the user interface. If content authors are using an interface which is an good example of accessibility, it but help them adopt better patterns. It's also clear that accessibility features need to be better documented so that everyone knows how to use them appropriately.

Shaping the authoring experience to favor more accessible content is really key. There are a number of places where authors can be given direction about potential accessibility problems. Thinking about where and how to do this though is complicated.

Practical Help for Authors

ATAG provides a structure to helps authoring tools like Drupal 8 find ways to make it easier to produce accessible content.

Authoring tools can check for consistency, verify structure, enforce a workflow, do basic data analysis, check for a valid Document Object Model (DOM), help support upgrades to keep up with changes in HTML, and much more. These are areas which a web properly structured CMS should be able to help support the author.

One challenge for content authors is dealing with non-text content. Images, Audio/Video, Documents, Charts, etc. are often quite difficult for people with disabilities. Providing specific support to help with managing this content is quite important for any site striving to meet WCAG 2.0 AA standards.

Any human will make mistakes, and computers are really good at checking for routine problems and prompting a person to select a better option. There are efforts in Drupal to do this with the QuailJS library which is set to check many of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines and report problems immediately to the user.

It's Complicated, Which is Why Guidelines are Necessary

Web accessibility is complicated. Building a CMS that supports solid accessibility defaults is more complicated. Creating an authoring environment that makes it easier to create accessible content for authors is even more difficult still. This is the challenge that ATAG presents to those who are making web authoring environments.

Still, this remains the simplest way to ensure that agencies that are are required to meet WCAG guidelines are able to do so.

I presented a talk based on this to CodeFest 2014, a two day conference focused on building a community around the Government of Canada's Web Experience Toolkit. The slides are available on Google.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.

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