The Accessibility Cookbook: a Recipe for Disaster

To many amateur bakers, making bread is a mysterious and often frightening process. For this reason, it is often avoided. Those who do decide to take the plunge usually are extremely careful not to vary the recipe one bit. In fact, most cookbooks with bread recipes warn strongly against experimentation. Some make the reader feel as though using one more egg than recommended would cause their kitchen to catch fire and their family to die a horribly painful death of bread poisoning. And so, the myth is perpetuated that bread making is a very complex process, the inner-workings of which can only be understood by those bakers with a doctorate in breadology. They forget that our ancestors (a few of whom had to be at least slightly dumber than they are) made bread on a regular basis with no problems.

Fortunately, there are a few enlightened authors who have written books explaining, in essence, how bread works. Many people are surprised to find out that it’s really quite simple. In fact, once they understand the basics, many home bakers find that they no longer need a recipe or even measuring utensils, and they go on to make excellent bread by guess work and intuition alone.

It has been my experience that many people who learn about accessibility are led down a similar path as would-be bread bakers. They are handed a recipe and told, “This is what you are to do, and if you don’t do this exactly, those crazy disability advocates will come after you with their blood-thirsty lawyers.” They are told things like, “mark headings up as such,” and “put skip-to-content links at the top of pages.” What all too often is not mentioned is why. The reader is not told, for example, that most screen readers have a hotkey which, when pressed, will present the user with a list of all of the headings on the page, and that this is often used to “skim”, just as a sighted user might look down the page to see what was typographically emphasized. No mention is made of the fact that persons who must use the keyboard as a result of limited mobility, find skip links a huge time saver, because they don’t have to tab through all those links that one usually finds in abundance at the top of most pages.

What is worse, sometimes advice is given that is just plain wrong. For instance, it is a common misconception that every image on a page should include an alt attribute with a verbose description. In actuality, only images with important information should be provided with descriptions, and those should be as brief as possible. For example, if there was an image which said “50% off this week on all orders over $50”, then that should clearly be provided with alternative text. However, if there was a picture of a man using a particular product, I’m really not interested in hearing “picture of a man looking pleased as punch to be using the new ultra-lite USB hair drier,” or worse, “picture of a man.” I really don’t care about what image the designers chose to use as eye-candy. I can’t see them, and descriptions of meaningless images just waste my time and delay my getting to the information I’m really interested in.

So, what’s a baker to do? Unfortunately, the efficient use of a screen reader takes time to learn, so it is not all that practical to simply install a demo version and try out your site. Your best bet is to learn the accessibility recipe, but then go on to learn why each step is necessary and important. However, in the end, one must ask the question, could a person with no sense of taste learn to make good bread? I believe they could. The real question is, could they do it consistently? Also, how will they know when they’ve botched it. The only real way to know would be to ask someone with a sense of taste, or, in other words, ask a disabled user to test it. As the person suffering from ageusia receives additional feedback on his or her bread, their skills will increase, and they will get it right more of the time. So, in short, learn all you can about the why of accessibility, and then go do your best. Most of the time, it will probably be good enough, and almost certainly better than if you just blindly follow a recipe.

A great book, which gives a lot of good detail on the why and how of accessibility is Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance by Andrew Kirkpatrick, et al.

posted by Aaron Cannon on Friday, Nov 09, 2007
tagged with accessibility, bread, books, recipie, screen, reader, cooking