Intelligent Open Source Collaboration for Better Accessibility



October 26, 2011

Recently as we've been working on enhancements to Drupal 8, we run into several situations where we are looking at the jQuery library.  Drupal's been including the free software jQuery for the last two releases and are using it more and more as it evolves. We were hoping we'd be able to simply leverage a solid accessible jQuery UI element rather than have to continue to enhance our own javascript widgets.  

jQuery UI 1.8 has an autocomplete widget in it so why don't we just use this rather than re-invent the wheel for Drupal 8.  Unfortunately based on some quick testing by Everett Zufelt the autocomplete widget wasn't as accessible as what we have implemented in Drupal 7. At the writing of this post there are nearly 200,000 websites that report running Drupal 7 and are benefiting from the enhancements we've made. Investing in Drupal core is already removing barriers for millions of people on live websites. jQuery improvements will have an even bigger impact. 

Now ideally we'd have lots of resources put into central libraries like jQuery because when these core projects get enhanced, everyone who uses them benefits.  It just makes so much sense to invest limited accessibility funding into the projects which will have the biggest bang.  Just take a look at some of these jQuery powered sites and projects. Just having Drupal and WordPress using them means that by default it's being used by a large percentage of the web.  

Now there have been attempts in the past to improve the accessibility of jQuery & related widgets.  The Paciello Group (TPG) developed this library of accessible jQuery widgets through funding by AOL and AEGIS.  There is a similar initiative that's being spearheaded by the Government of Canada to better integrate accessible jQuery widgets for their Web Experience Toolkit. jQuery is the recommended javascript library for the implementation of the federal government's Common Look & Feel.  All Government of Canada sites are required to be WCAG 2.0 AA compliant by the summer of 2013, so improving jQuery's accessibility is critical for government. These are both good initiatives, but I haven't seen evidence of the work moving upstream and being adopted by the jQuery community. 

Fortunately Jennison Asuncion took the initiative to set up the Open Source Accessibility Network which got several of us talking about ways to work better across software communities to promote best practices & learn from each other.  I believe this was the spark which drove Everett Zeufelt to lead a jQuery UI Accessibility Review.

Everett's looking for people to help with the review, comment on bug reports which he makes & if at all possible contribute financially to his evaluation.  He's committed to investing 40 hours of work in this project and I know from experience that he will be able to produce constructive, detailed and technical recommendations.  

This is a worth-while investment.  With coordination with other open source projects the accessibility enhancements made in this week will go a long way to improving the accessibility of a great deal of the web.

For all open source projects it is important that advocates ask, what is the right level for this problem to be solved. Can this problem be better resolved by engaging with the communities behind centralized libraries? If so, how do we get involved in improving them?

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.