HiSoftware makes MOSS more accessible and usable

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Why are so many websites still not fully accessible to people with disabilities? There are a variety of answers to this question but I believe the two big ones are:

  • The organisations, and more importantly executives, responsible for commissioning and developing web sites are still not aware of the importance, socially, financially or legally, of the site being accessible. In the end, more accessible websites have proven to drive greater revenue opportunities and higher levels of customer satisfaction
  • The tools for developing and testing web sites do not make it easy to create such sites. The designers and developers are not given any guidance, templates or prompting to aid them.

The first is an issue that has to be continuously pushed by anyone and everyone who cares about accessibility including the tool vendors.

Microsoft over many years has recognised the importance of accessibility but even so realised that the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 07 (MOSS) did not make it easy enough to develop accessible solutions. MOSS had the basic constructs available so that a developer who understood accessibility, in depth, could create an accessible solution. However any web developer, for whom accessibility is just one of many priorities, would find it difficult to find help, guidance, code templates or testing tools for accessibility. The result was that, even when accessibility was recognised as an issue, only lip service was paid to the issue and only a partial solution was created. The result in many cases was of little use to anyone.

Through broad-reaching market research with the organisations including the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB – UK) and enterprises throughout Europe, North America and the APAC region, Microsoft identified a competitive need for an accessibility kit. The kit would aid not only the developer but also the content providers in creating accessible applications and end-to-end accessibility solutions.  It has retained HiSoftware, a leader in accessibility testing with over 4,000 customers world-wide, to develop the kit for MOSS.

HiSoftware having developed a series of tools for testing, validating and repairing web sites, in an enterprise-wide collaborative effort, was in the perfect position to define what organizations, developers and executives needed to simplify the task of creating, and more importantly maintaining, accessible web sites. The resulting Accessibility Kit for SharePoint (AKS) provides tools and components, as well as documentation and tutorials to ensure that MOSS provides a basic solution for accessibility. The intellectual property, jointly owned by HiSoftware and Microsoft, is available, as shared source code, to the community through Codeplex as well as the AKS Community Site being hosted by HiSoftware (aks.hisoftware.com).

The first release of AKS in late October will greatly simplify the task of creating standard accessible web page on SharePoint. A second release is planned for the end of 2007 with further improvements for advanced web content authoring and team collaboration scenarios. The product will also tie into HiSoftware’s industry leading solutions to provide a complete end-to-end accessibility solution.

These improvements will significantly reduce the technical complexity of creating accessible websites; they will reduce the learning curve and improve the technical quality of the coding. However that does not mean that the designers and developers do not need to understand accessibility. It just allows them to concentrate on the really important issue – making the site truly functionally usable by people with disabilities. Some of the issues that they can now concentrate on are:

  • Clear use of language.
  • Easy and intuitive navigation around the site.
  • A logical tab sequence around a page.
  • Clear labels on forms.
  • Informative alternative text on images.
  • Captioning of videos.

It is interesting to note that most of these issues also create a site which will be more usable by everyone not just people with disabilities.

Thus, the Accessibility Kit for SharePoint, in conjunction with the basic functionality of SharePoint and the testing tools from HiSoftware, should not only make web sites more accessible but also more usable. Anyone who is developing MOSS application should use the new AKS even if accessibility is not their highest priority to create a site the will provide increased revenue opportunities, reduced risk management and increased social responsibility.