Better accessibility for all

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2005 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

When I travel to the airport by public transport with my little wheelie suitcase trotting behind me, I am always grateful for the drop pavements, the continuous pavements, and for lifts at the stations – all of which have been installed in the last few years. Of course, these facilities have been installed to increase mobility for the disabled and not for my benefit. However, these improvements have made as big an impact on the elderly, the pram pushing mothers, and the suitcase dragging tourists as they have to the disabled in wheel chairs. In the next few years a similar scenario is going to play itself out on the web.

IBM recently announced that it is contributing software to the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox Web browser to make it easier for more users – including those with visual and motor impairments – to access and navigate the Web.

In addition to contributing code that will make it possible for Web pages to be automatically narrated or magnified, and to be better navigated with keystrokes rather than mouse clicks, IBM is contributing Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language (DHTML) accessibility technology to the upcoming Firefox Version 1.5. This will allow software developers to build accessible and navigable ‘Rich Internet Applications’ (RIAs) – a new class of applications that are particularly visual and interactive. DHTML will also allow users to efficiently navigate content more easily using keystrokes rather than a mouse.

This is being done in support of ongoing work at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative, and as part of IBM’s commitment to open standards and Open Source.

I was given a demonstration of this technology and I could see and hear how good it is. The demonstration showed a tree structure and a spreadsheet-type application, both of which can be navigated around without using a mouse. This is obviously essential for the blind, who find mice of no practical use, but also is a great benefit for people who find controlling a mouse difficult, for example, those suffering from repetitive strain injuries (RSI) who prefer not to use a mouse; in fact they would prefer to use voice activation and not use the keyboard either.

The IBM extensions enable the screen readers to give much clearer descriptions of what is going on. So for example, when traversing a tree structure the reader announces information such as:

  • How deep you are in the tree
  • How many nodes are at that level
  • If a folder is open or closed

This has been receiving rapturous reviews from the blind volunteers who have been testing it.

The work that IBM is doing to extend Dynamic HTML (DHTML) is obviously primarily to help the disabled. But even able-bodied people prefer to use the keyboard rather than the mouse for some applications; for example, just consider a spreadsheet where you could not use the arrow keys or tab buttons to navigate around the sheet but had to use the mouse to highlight any cell!

Also, power users very often use the keyboard because it is faster and easier to use. I have just discovered how to navigate Windows Explorer using the keyboard and find it to be very neat and fast; to try it, go to explorer and play with back and forward tab, up and down and left and right cursor keys, then type a letter to move to a file or folder. I would not use it all the time but for complex folder structures that I use on a regular basis it is very appealing.

So once IBM has got these new features working in Firefox 1.5 then I suspect that the biggest beneficiaries will be Jo Average.

I have only mentioned Firefox up to now but this functionality will also work with Internet Explorer – except if you need to use a screen reader or similar assistive technology.

So should developers be looking at this technology yet? It looks as if adding this level of accessibility to websites will make them very attractive and therefore developers should be moving in that direction. Firefox 1.5, which supports this new function, is due for release this month so now is the time to start thinking about it.

I only have one proviso; although the technology is soon to be available in the browser, the tools for simpler authoring will take a bit longer. This technology is complex and it will only really be able to take off when there are good authoring tools to hide all the complexity from the average web designer.

There are a number of projects to provide authoring functionality so I would suggest late 2005 and early 2006 is the time for playing with the new technology, to understand its potential, and then start moving into production in mid to late 2006.