Last week I headed down to London to attend the Web Accessibility Unconference – a11yLDN 2010. You can head over to the official site to find out more about the day, along with links to slides, comments etc.
The day had a motor impairment theme, which is typically a rather under-represented area of web accessibility. There was a bit of discussion around why this was, with the suggestion that it was due to a lack of pressure coming from those representing the needs of that audience. The excellent work of the likes of RNIB has led to a far greater understanding of the needs of visually impaired users, for example, and there is clearly a need for this to be replicated across the board.
Following a nice introduction to web accessibility from organisers Makayla Lewis (@maccymacx) and Graham Armfield (@coolfields), Makayla presented some of her findings from her research on how people with motor impairments (specifically those with Cerebral Palsy) use the web.
Perhaps the clearest message from Makayla’s presentation was how important the web, and social networking in particular, is to many users with CP – providing opportunities to interact with others far more easily. Such opportunities would have been strictly limited before the web, but accessibility issues continue to put up barriers. One telling example Makayla gives is of the user with severe impairments, who relies upon a carer to help them use FaceBook. The resulting lack of privacy is clearly far from ideal, and no doubt limits what they are comfortable doing online.
Makayla then establishes a live phone link with a person with Cerebral Palsy, who talks about the challenges she faces everyday. Problems like buttons being too small to easily click are common, and the user expressed frustration at the lack of help that websites offer. Another clear problem which many people may not think about was the issues generated when a website updates its design. The user stated that sites should really warn users before changing a site – explaining the how and why, and offering support. Finally, she suggested that the option to go back to the old version was always useful. Users with impairments will often adopt ‘coping strategies’ that will have to change when a site changes, so consideration of these users when launching a redesign is essential.
I sacrificed a bite to eat to attend a lunchtime presentation by Martin Kliehm (@kliehm) on HTML5, which he called “Of Unicorns and Crocodiles”. It was an interesting showcase of both the problems and opportunities that will come with HTML5 – most notably, Martin suggested that accessibility was still very much a ‘bolt-on’ and that needed to change.
Crowd-sourcing web accessibility
The ‘unconference’ style of the day meant there were plenty of tough decisions about which sessions to attend, but I opted to go along to hear Dr Gail Bradbrook (@FixTheWebGail) talk about Fix The Web. The idea behind the site is to allow disabled users to easily report issues with websites. These are then picked up by a team of volunteers who will get in touch with the site owner, to report the issue and hopefully get it resolved.
I’ve signed up as a volunteer and will blog more about this exciting initiative soon.
Next, I went along to hear Karen Mardahl (@kmdk) give a few tips on practical accessibility, including captioning videos and creating accessible PDFs. I’ve written plenty on these subjects myself, and it was great to hear Karen talk about the quick-wins which are so easy to implement, yet which make such a huge difference to users.
Thanks to Makayla and all the others involved in organising the day – I hope it proved to be an inspiration to all those who attended or followed on Twitter, and I look forward to seeing the discussions continue online.