Discovering Accessibility

My final project working at the Mozilla Foundation was teach.mozilla.org, which was the first content-based website I’ve helped create in quite some time. During the site’s development, I finally gave myself the time to learn about a practice I’d been procrastinating to learn about for an embarrassingly long time: accessibility.

One of the problems I’ve had with a lot of guides on accessibility is that they focus on standards instead of people. As a design-driven engineer, I find standards necessary but not sufficient to create compelling user experiences. What I really wanted to know about was not the ARIA markup to use for my code, but how to empathize with the way “extreme users”–people with disabilities–use the Web.

I finally found a book with such a holistic approach to accessibility called A Web For Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery. I’m still not done reading it, but I highly recommend it.

Stage 1: Accessibility Is Awesome!

The first thing I did in an attempt to empathize with users of screen readers was to actually be proactive and learn to use a screen reader. The first one I learned how to use was the open-source NVDA screen reader for Windows. Learning how to use it actually reminded me a bit of learning vi and emacs for the first time: for example, because I couldn’t visually scan through a page to see its headings, I had to learn special keyboard commands to advance to the next and previous heading.

Obviously, however, I am a very particular kind of user when I use a screen reader: because I don’t actually rely on auditory information as much as a blind person, I can’t listen to a screen reader’s narration very fast. And because I’m a highly technical user who is good at remembering keyboard shortcuts, I can remember a lot of them. So it was useful to compare my own use of screen readers against Ginny Redish’s paper on Observing Users Who Work With Screen Readers (PDF).

After learning the basics of NVDA, I found Terrill Thompson’s blog post on Good Examples of Accessible Web Sites and tried visiting some of them with my shiny new screen reader. Doing this gave me lots of inspiration on how to make my own sites more accessible.

The web service tenon.io was also quite helpful in educating me on best practices my existing websites lacked, and The Paciello Group’s Web Components Punch List was helpful when I needed to create or evaluate custom UI widgets.

All of this has constituted what I’ve begun to call my “honeymoon” with accessibility. It was quite satisfying to empathize with the needs of extreme users, and I was excited about creating sites that were delightful to use with NVDA.

Stage 2: Accessibility Is Hard!

What ended up being much harder, though, was actually building a delightful experience for users who might be using any screen reader.

The second screen reader I learned how to use was Apple’s excellent VoiceOver, which comes built-in with all OS X and iOS devices. And like the early days of the Web, when a delightful experience on one browser was completely unusable in another, I often found that my hard work to improve my site’s usability on NVDA often made the site less usable on VoiceOver. For example, as Steve Faulkner has documented, the behavior of the ARIA role="alert" varies immensely across different browser and screen reader combinations, which led to some frustrating trade-offs on the Teach site.

One potential short-term solution to this might be for sites to have slightly different code depending on the particular browser/screen-reader combination being used. Aside from being a bad idea for a number of reasons, though, it’s also technically impossible–the current screen reader isn’t reflected in navigator.userAgent or anything else.

So, that’s the current situation I find myself in with respect to accessibility: creating accessible static content is easy and helps extreme users, but creating accessible rich internet applications is quite difficult because screen readers implement the standards so differently. I’m eagerly hoping that this situation improves over the coming years.