IBM Bluemix Accessibility Services

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2015 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Why are so few websites, so few web applications and so little web content accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and older people? It does not really matter how you measure it, the level of compliance is woefully below 100 percent.

There are many answers to this question but most of them relate to accessibility being looked at as an add-on or an aside to the development process. Anything that is considered in this way will be ignored, then delayed, until a critical moment when it becomes too expensive and disruptive to resolve. The asset will go into production and will never be fixed unless someone puts a lot of pressure on the creator using moral pressure, financial pressure or judicial pressure, to force a change.

The solution to this problem is to move accessibility from being an aside to being in-line. To do this the creation and testing of accessible assets has to become a standard and integrated part of the development process. IBM recognised this problem and has announced two new services, Digital Content Checker and Automated Accessibility Tester, that are integrated into IBM Bluemix, its cloud-based development environment. They are available on an extended free beta trial.

The Digital Content Checker will look at individual HTML pages and individual ePUB documents during development and report on accessibility issues. In the agile development environment supported by Bluemix this means that accessibility issues will be picked up in-line at the very early stages of coding and development. Like any other development issue, finding and fixing problems early is faster, less stressful and more economic than trying to do it during final user testing. This checker looks at individual pages and therefore only sees static HTML and cannot identify issues in any dynamic webpages, these will be identified by the Automated Accessibility Tester later in the process.

The Checker can also be integrated into an organisation’s own internal content development workflow so accessibility is part of the review and approval process.

Content Checkers are not new but this offering from IBM benefits from its close integration with Bluemix. The reports are produced on the Bluemix dashboard. If an issue is reported then the description includes links to more detailed explanations, code examples and the underlying standards. It is then very easy to make changes to fix any problems and retest, just like any other coding fix.

The checks are based on the WCAG 2.0 standard. IBM’s experience developing web applications has led to some extra checks that IBM believes further improve accessibility. There is an option to switch on these extra checks.

Many accessibility errors can be avoided by either having well-written code templates or by developers knowing that certain items are required (for example an image must have an alternate text description). The early testing will ensure both these happen very early on in the development of a project. Once these are in place there should be fewer accessibility errors and those that are found will be easier to fix.

The Automated Accessibility Tester is integrated into the dynamic system testing phases of a project. Bluemix uses Selenium to drive automatic testing of browser applications, the test scripts define all the interactions with the browser and specify when the Accessibility Checks should be run. During system testing all the individual pages that have been tested by Digital Content Checker, are brought together and tested to ensure they work together to provide the end user solution. As each step of a process is function tested it will also be tested for accessibility. These checks will pick up issues in dynamic web pages that the Content Checker cannot identify. The results of these tests are displayed on the dashboard with the ability to drill down into more detail as required.

It should be noted that these automated test tools do not remove the need for User Testing. A human in front of a screen will identify design issues that make the web application less accessible and less usable than it could be; examples include: size or position of buttons, description of images, and layout of page or forms . Some user testing is required during each stage of development from initial design through to final system testing.

These Bluemix automated testing tools will identify and remove the majority of accessibility issues, will identify issues that are not easily detected by user testing, will automate the testing of small changes, and hence improve the productivity of the human testers, who can concentrate on ensuring the application user interface works for all types of user.

Once these checkers are integrated into an organisations development environment accessibility should cease to be an overhead and just become part of the business-as-usual development process.