Accessible design, unobtrusive scripting, and terrible cell phone browsers.
From all accounts, the recent @Media conference in London was a smash hit. One take-away that has appeared everywhere is a renewed interest in accessibility issues. Given the creation of the WaSP ATF and resulting discussion, the eye being kept on the under-development WCAG2, the interest in zoom layouts, and even the questioning of what we know, there’s a lot going on right now.
At the moment, accessibility practices attempt to assist those with disabilities. This is a reasonable starting point. A founding goal of the web, after all, is to allow access to anyone, anywhere, at any time, on any device. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there, but if you’re looking for the ultimate definition of accessibility, that’s it. Over the long term, the concept of accessibility must become this broader definition.
During the recent North American long weekend, I spent time out of town, sans computer. Accessing any web site on the cell phone I’m cursed with is an exercise in frustration, however I had time one afternoon to make a determined attempt to use various sites. Those built with standards worked. Those built with accessibility in mind worked well. Those built by developers stuck in 1997-era development habits were completely useless.
As a normal user on a desktop browser, I observe no problems with this application. As a remote user without access to the same level of technology I’m accustomed to, I can’t even use it. Solving this problem would mean employing methods to make the site work without CSS, without script, and essentially allow unstyled and unscripted HTML to accomplish the same task. Funny enough, doing so would likely boost the overall accessibility of the site as well, allowing users with assistive devices to accomplish the same goals in a similar fashion.
So for me, the obvious take-away in all of this is that, by building sites and applications in an accessible manner, the payoff will extend beyond the immediately obvious. The question remaining is, how do we go about doing so? Though there are lingering doubts about the effects of CSS on assistive technologies, a properly-built site will degrade gracefully when CSS isn’t rendered; there is clean-up work yet to do to solidify the particulars, but we have figured out that the separation of structure and presentation goes a long way to accomplishing this goal.