Why is accessibility so hard? Glad you asked!

Dear President of ACM Vint Cerf:


In your article “Why is Accessibility so hard?” , you invited comments and received many valuable references and opinions from other non-members of ACM. However, anonymous comments like mine seem not to be appearing since submitted for review after November 8. I worked hard on this little piece and have some constructive suggestions along the lines of an important ACM computing themes, namely “computational thinking”. As a former member of ACM, thoroughly disgusted by the un usability of the ACM Digital Library and haphazard HTMl of acm.org, I was hoping to find a genuine thread of change. So, not knowing if my submitted comment below is stifled or just dropped off your radar of comment reviewing, here’s my advice anyway.

Analyzing the computing field accessibility deficit

Thanks for asking. My “As Your World Changes” blog has myriad suggestions for overdue change to accessibility practices within computing:

My favorite resources — great reading

As a late life vision loser,and ex-ACM member, I hope the previously commented resources expand your frames of reference. Please add my favorites:(1 Wendy Chisholm and Matt May, “Universal Design for Web Applications” book; (2) WebAim.org screen reader user survey, WAVE accessibility checker, and pages of excellent practical advice; (3) the “accessibility virtual water cooler” linked by #a11y and #accessibility on Twitter; (4) the iBlinkRadio Android and IOS app portal to podcast and communities for visually impaired tech users; (5) a personable informative Rochester-based Viewpoints radio/podcast on products and daily living tips for vision loss. at http://viewpointsplus.net

Quintessential challenges: computational thinking and omitted requirement accelerating costs

Why do some think accessibility is hard? The good news is that we have at hand the quintessential “computational thinking” situation and mental tools for tackling much of accessibility. The bad news is another quintessential situation: the software economics of increasing cost of re mediating a missing requirement. Furthermore, attitudes are exacerbated by ignoring maturing web standards and disengagement from high performing professionals with disabilities in the assistive technology industry. ACM has also fostered an image of social exclusiveness through its misguided touting of the wonders of the “NO BLIND ALLOWED” symbol CAPTCHA (as if these magically warded off intruders other than us). How much of the difficulty is social rather than technological?

Remediation opportunity: learn by fixing your own website

Luckily the remediation opportunities for learning through and fixing accessibility flaws are readily available. Start with typing your institution, personal, or favorite web page into http://wave.webaim.org. This free and instantly usable analyzer will highlight the semantic structure of the page meaningful to screen reader users like me. It’s highly likely you’ll also expose accessibility deviations from standards. Common zits are: unlabeled form elements leaving me wondering what to enter in the edit box; non informative link like “click here” that require reading the context; missing or mis-ordered headings that obscure the page outline, forcing me into tabbing among HTML elements linearly without a comprehensive outline for discovery and navigation; or graphics without descriptions as to purpose and content. Does your experimental analysis make you wonder why web developers didn’t follow even these simple rules of accessibility? If you’re accountable for the page, like this very one from acm, then how should you change your process, contractors, or attitudes if better accessibility is really a goal?

Remediation Opportunity: Establish CSEdWeek challenges

Here’s another experiment I’ve performed myself (see blog posts). Computer Science Education Week is a big publicity deal for prestige and recruitment into a presumably non-discriminatory profession. Are there at least minimal standards for accessibility of partner web sites? Is the language inclusive, at least recognizing that pedagogical tools like Alice are problematic and that CAPTCHAs on the contact page are offensive? A little bit of shame and accountability can be shared by all if we no longer act like accessibility is always hard but rather start fixing simple problems, learning along the way.

Remediation Opportunity: Listen to people who daily conquer accessibility challenges

One more opportunity is to cross the disability social engagement boundary and actually sit down with somebody who uses the wondrous technology available. You can familiarize yourself for freeze by installing the world class NVDA Windows screen reader, turning on VoiceOver on a Mac or IOS device (triple click home). Here’s a “computational thinking” experiment: can you gain the same information sighted or blind folded? Why not? what do you have to learn to communicate, hold in memory, sequence differently, or give up on? How do you feel when offered an unlabeled button? Where do you go to learn new Techniques and good practices (hint: applevis.com and iBlinkRadio app)? Really, visually impaired folks can talk, explain, and share their joy using technology as well as constructive frustrations. Just ask!.

The Remaining Challenge after Remediation: absorbing complex information

Ok,there is one class of challenging problem beyond myriad simple accessibility rules and negligent process instances mentioned. Complex data structures like tables are memory taxing without vision and graphs and charts and animations require alternative sensory representations. Again, this is computational thinking as in concrete or multiple representations of the underlying information and semantics. Why doesn’t ACM offer a prize for advances here, which also might help everybody better consume visual information?

Take heart, all you future vision losers, as resources abound

Finally, to the many of you who will be losing vision in late career or retirement? Take heart, there’s never been a better time! You must locate whatever vision rehabilitation services are available locally, like Lighthouse or Independent Living but don’t let the strange web of state and charity “helpers” limit you. Macular degenerates can find a veritable wikipedia of practical and emotional sustenance at http://mdsupport.org. The podcasted media of Main Menu ACBRadio, Seratech perspectives (iBlinkRadio), and the TechDoctor can ease you into product assessment and sharing the joys of now abundant mainstream products. An iPod Touch is a great “gateway drug” into this world if you haven’t already been bitten by the Apple bug. Becoming print disabled isn’t all bad, because you are now eligible for near free daily newspapers and libraries of thousands of easily downloadable books for synthetic speech reading on devices and apps far better than sighted users buy. Yes, there’s a monster learning curve, but we technologists are well positioned for this one more life adjustment. If we can now get our profession into the solution side rather than producing more generations of uneducated students accepting such poor role models as acm.org, then we might even be able to contribute better our valuable experience to a professional society that understands disabilities as computational thinking differences.

summary from my decade of adjustment to vision loss using technology with class:

get cracking on learning about accessibility by fixing simple, obstructive, instructive problems. Listen to accessibility professionals and high performing persons with disabilities who offer their spirited advice through social media. Only then will the goals of ACM style research be brought to fruition and we will identify the intrinsic difficulty of accessibility.

Yours, in respect and hope for change, finally

Susan L. Gerhart, retired visionary computer scientist and myopic macular degenerate
slger123@gmail.com
blog on adjusting to vision loss: http://asyourworldchanges.wordpress.com

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One Response to “Why is accessibility so hard? Glad you asked!”

  1. slger Says:

    A series of posts advocating accessibility from empirical understanding of individual user activities (my paraphrase)

    http://simon.harper.name/2012/11/20/vint-cerf-on-accessibility/

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