About 6 years ago I had a conversion experience. This completely changed my world view and opened up new ways of thinking. I am talking about web standards, and my discovery of the work of Jeffrey Zeldman and others at the Web Standards Project.
Like many others at the time I became a zealot for the cause, and this inevitably led me down the path to other standards and the web accessibility initiative.
This all seemed like good sense at the time, and like most good followers of the cause I adhered to the published best practices espoused by the prophets.
Like most people, this is how I ran my web projects:
1. Specify the accessibility standards that have to be met (internally or by a contractor).
2. Schedule a testing phase at some point prior to launch, and perhaps commission a report.
3. Fix the things that didn't meet the standard, and;
4. Launch the site.
5. Job done.
Sadly, once any site is launched the second law of thermodynamics begins to do its work. This law states that all closed systems (those that don't have more energy applied to them from outside) tend to return to a state of chaos. Does that sound like most websites?
Without constant vigilance content becomes less relevant (or wrong), and markup gets less valid over time. From an accessibility point of view, attention to the details that matter (e.g. access keys, hidden headings, and general markup) will also tend to disperse, making for an inconsistent experience.
After the fourth iteration of the RNZ site was launched (the one you see today) I realised that we'd been doing things differently. No longer did we simply follow the 'recipes' advocated by others; those practices had become a way of life and we were developing our own ways of doing things. New content areas were being created, and we were thinking about accessibility issues without thinking about them. I thought we had accessibility sussed.
But earlier this year I got some feedback that completely changed my view. Someone had attended a session on screen readers run by the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind, and had blogged about one small problem with our site. I was mortified. A problem with OUR site?
The problem was that links in the Features section of the home page did not make sense to screen readers. The links following each feature had the text "Find out more", and a screen reader navigating the page would hear a series of links read thus:
link: Find out more
link: Find out more
link: Find out more
Not very helpful, so we added hidden text to each link:
Find out more about Podcast Classics
Find out more about Enzology
The extra text sits in span with a CSS class that removes it from the visual layout.
We've made the use of hidden text standard practice on the site. There are already many hidden headings to say what each section of the page is for: Main navigation list, current location in site, Menu, secondary navigation, and so on, so this was a simple change.
This was a wake up call for me, and highlights a reality: your accessibility effort is never complete.
A few weeks ago I subscribed to the Assistive Technology Interest Group run by the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind. I did this to enlist the help of the community who'd have to use the player, and for whom it is probably most important to get it right.
One of the benefits of going direct (instead of commissioning a report) is that a conversation can develop. The player can (and will) be fine-tuned through many iterations based on the detailed feedback that comes from talking with people. Compared with the usual build it, test it, fix it approach, I think this process will create a better outcome for everyone.
I have been humbled by the helpfulness of people on the list, and their willingness to explain things that are obvious to them, but not to me. I have also benefited from reading conversations about other access issues.
While on the list I've found that the community is changing all the time - for example new technologies like ARIA are being developed and implemented. People are finding better ways to do things. My expectations of what can now be achieved have gone up.
Where to from here ?
My experience has raised some interesting questions. Why is it that most web projects to do not talk directly to their end users? Or if they do, it is via a third party?
If you were born in or before the 60s think back to when you were a child and see if this rings true. Recall the times when you ever saw a person with a disability in the street. You'd never seen anyone like this before, and being curious, you take a good look. Your parent sees you looking and tells you not to stare. For my generation disability was a thing you hid away and did not discuss.
I shared these thoughts at a recent talk I gave, and there were a lot of heads nodding. For the response I got, I suspect that may people don't engage with the disabled because they are embarrassed and have no idea where to start.
I was talking this over with my wife (a teacher) and she pointed out that while that may be true for our generation (born early 60s), our children (born in the 90s) do not have this problem. The disabled are not hidden away, but attend the same schools as everyone else. They have the same opportunities. There is a different view of 'normal'.
This might be the reason why my generation is less willing to engage with the disabled, and will hire a consultant instead.
That is not to say that you should not hire a consultant; a good one will guide you through the process of making your site accessible, and help you put in place systems to ensure it stays that way. A great consultant will help you to communicate with you end-users on an on-going basis.
To summarise: accessibility is not an box to tick. It is not an event. It is not even a process. It is a conversation, a conversation that has to involve those whom your site exists to serve.
If you have never spent time with people who use assistive technologies to access your site, now is the time to start.