Accessible Experts: Dennis Lembree Talks About Accessible Twitter
In this blog I have talked about Accessible Twitter several times. In one of the posts, I have examined if mainstream sites or accessible solutions should be used, where I used Accessible Twitter as an example. After writing this post, I have contacted Dennis Lembree to shar his views. Read why and how Dennis decided to create Accessible Twitter.
Have you ever done something which seemed wrong but everybody was doing it so you assumed it was right?
Wrong Versus Right
Most of us have done something wrong, even if we knew it, because everyone else was doing it. And it didn't matter if it was wrong or not because it was generally accepted. And sometimes the "right" way was either unproven, unknown or just "no fun". And we didn't care. Like smoking in the mid twentieth century—the public thought it was the right thing to do; it was accepted and very popular. And some even said smoking was good for you! But of course now we know smoking is very bad for your health.
Let's take another example. Centuries ago, it was believed that the earth existed at the center of the universe. This was a widely known "fact"; everyone lived by this rule. And now we know this, of course, not to be true.
Today's Web is Wrong
Well, the web is the same way. Coding outside of web accessibility (and web standards) is the common practice and, dare I say, is simply wrong! Unfortunately, most web sites and most web applications are not standards-compliant nor web accessible. Just 2 1/2 years ago, it was found that 97% of websites were still inaccessible! And like the above examples, because most people act and think in a certain manner, it's a generally accepted practice. It seems to be the right thing to do, even though it's not. There are many benefits of web accessibility, and the W3C provides a great Business Case for Web Accessibility; I'm dumbfounded as to why more web owners don't implement this practice.
Let's discuss a couple of the many reasons why so many web sites are not web accessible. First, in countries like the United States, there is no law to enforce accessibility, so this further encourages this malpractice in web site coding. And although Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a U.S. law pertaining to web accessibility, it's badly out-dated, only mandates federal sites, and is highly ignored.
Secondly, to adjust from one way of coding to another is "no fun" for many people, so they just don't want to do it. It's natural human behavior; people resist thing which are new and different; people are afraid of the unknown. We are creatures of habit, and any type of change is uncomfortable. And having to re-learn anything can be a pain.
I find this frustrating, both personally and professionally, because my personality doesn't fit this description. I find it challenging and enjoyable to continue learning and finding improvements in code wherever and whenever possible. The web is constantly evolving, adapting, and at a very quick pace. If you're in the industry, you should know this. And you should, and need to, embrace it. (Out of college, I worked in the high-paced field of advertising and publishing, so this helped me acclimate to this work environment.)
And let's remember that the web exists for all people, not just those who have use of a mouse, or perfect vision, or a broadband Internet connection. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Worldwide Web and Director of the W3C Consortium, said "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." If a developer cannot grasp these concepts, then he or she may want to consider another field of work.
The Epitome of Today's Web
An excellent example of where a popular "Web 2.0" site has gone wrong, and right, is Twitter. It's a fun, social, micro-blogging service which has grown tremendously in the past year. Where it goes wrong is how the front-end is coded. (Yes, the API service has been terribly unreliable, which is somewhat excused by the exponential increased usage.) The code was built poorly from the start. And once you start, it's more difficult to go back and retrofit the code for accessibility, especially when additional features and UI enhancements are being implemented at the same time.
So to be more specific, the actual problem is not that Twitter's code doesn't come close to validating, or that it doesn't pass any type of automated accessibility test, but that not all users can access the interface—some not very easily, and some not at all (see quotes below).
The Way God Intended
Here are some quotes from users of Accessible Twitter:
Wow! You have really made my day, and I am smiling once again. I am so excited that I found your Accessible Twitter. Now I feel that I can be in the cutting edge of everything that is happening in the Twitter Universe.
I'm a screen reader user and though I'm able to use the regular Twitter site, this one is so much easier.
Just found a Great accessible Twitter client at http://accessibletwitter.com; it is really easy with a Braille Display to use.
Great site BTW, seems to work nicely in Lynx. Main Twitter won't let me login and mobile site won't show followers.
Aha! http://www.accessibletwitter.com/ of course! From now on my default web interface for Twitter! Keyboard accessible == touch accessible!
The Right Is Simple
To build a site with web standards and web accessibility is much simpler than one would think. It's not as complex as it sounds, I propose that it's actually easier than other approaches to markup. I even argue that simplicity is the key. It's a good idea to keep the following two acronyms in mind:
- P.O.S.H.: Plain Ol' Semantic HTML.
- K.I.S.S.: A legendary rock band, but more importantly, a most elementary and profound skill in programming—Keep It Simple Stupid.
There are many reasons a web site should adhere to web standards and be web accessible. But until these practices become widely used, it seems that the minority of web professionals must continue to fight for the rights of all on the web. Starting development with clean, semantic markup is a great start, and easy to do. Until popular web sites understand that this is the right thing to do, the smaller guy, like Accessible Twitter, will have to continue its hard work to help make all web content accessible for all.
Great References & Suggested Reading
- Business Case for Web Standards
- Understanding WCAG 2.0
- Web Axe podcast and blog on web accessibility
- Opera Web Standards Curriculum
- WebAIM's Twitter Accessibility Roundup
- WebAIM's Accessibility Blog Roundup II
- Policies (Law)Relating to Web Accessibility