Visual Studio 2005 makes accessibility a real possibility

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

One of the barriers to developing accessible web sites has been that the development tools made it difficult or impossible to create conforming sites. Development tools were chosen for their capability and productivity but until recently the ability to generate accessible web sites was not on the requirements list.

Microsoft Visual Studio 2003 included support for developing accessible web sites. Microsoft provided guidelines and walkthroughs on how to use the functions to create accessible sites. However, it did require the developer to understand accessibility requirements and coding in detail. The support did not include support of XHTML, which is considered the best standard for supporting accessible sites, nor did it provide prompts to encourage the inclusion of accessible features such as alt tags or accesskeys; finally it did not provide an in-line testing tool to check compliance to accessibility standards.

Microsoft senior managers recognised their obligation as a major supplier of IT to make their products inclusive and that meant extending and improving on the functions available in Visual Studio 2003. This was reinforced by the growing pressure on Federal buying decisions to conform to Section 508. Microsoft have put significant effort into ensuring that new web development and run time solutions meet or exceed Section 508 requirements, W3C standards and similar legislation in other geographies such as the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK.

Much of the work that has been done has a second, and for some a more important, benefit. For a site to be accessible it is essential to separate the content from the layout. This separation also enables:

  • The deployment on different forms factors such as mobile phones and PDA.
  • Much greater re-use of code snippets.
  • Standard look and feel across a web site.
  • Cloning web sites with the same function but different branding.

To create this environment Microsoft had to extend and improve ASP.NET with version 2.0 and provide the run time .NET Framework 2.0. Visual Studio 2005 now provides the development environment which supports these new functions.

In addition to this support, Visual Studio now comes with a validation program that will check that the code generated is firstly valid XHTML and then adheres to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) accessibility standards. This function comes with the standard health warning that not all WAI requirements can be checked for automatically and human checking is still required. Notwithstanding the health check the validation program provides two important benefits, firstly it reduces the number of bugs the human checking will pick up, secondly once an accessible site has been set up it may not be necessary to run a human check against every new page. The reduction in the need for human checkers should translate in to a considerable cost saving.

Visual Studio 2005 makes accessibility a real possibility and Microsoft should be applauded for the careful testing and the dedication in making this happen. I believe that Microsoft will build on this base and add more help and wizards so that accessibility is not just a possibility but a probability.

Several earlier adopter clients already have proved the technology and have accessible web sites in production, including parts of the National Health Service in the UK.

For the more technical there follows a brief description of the major enhancements that have been made to ASP.NET:

  • Every ASP.NET control that displays an image includes a method for supplying alternate text, including the ability to set the text to null, and add a long description when required.
  • Forms can include labels on input fields, checkboxes and radio buttons, as well as creating sets of fields, defining tab orders and access keys.
  • A skip navigation function can be incorporated into a page.
  • Tables of data can be set up with the correct headings. Complex nested tables can also be defined.
  • Valid transitional or strict XHTML will be automatically generated.
  • Tables are not needed for layout.

With all these functions and an understanding of the accessibility requirements it is perfectly possible to create fully compliant accessible web sites.