Archive for February, 2009

My Accessibility Check: Images and their Surrogates

February 28, 2009


This post is part of a series on my experiences with web accessibility. Each post condenses what I’ve learned from before and after as a real-life Vision Loser continuing 30 years of Internet use and as a new student of accessibility theory and practice. Sighted readers will learn a bit more about how a low vision persons uses the web and other Vision Losers may sense some of the rationale behind the annotation of graphics.

Why are ALT tags Rule #1 of web accessibility


Ok, so web pages are inherently visually motivated to exploit the power of browsers and graphic images to convey information to users. But does that mean that images can be used freely, for either decorative or information roles, without the slightest indication of their purpose on a page? Wouldn’t that be cruel to people without vision? Of course! And with increase in use of mobile devices with smaller screens, images may also be problematic for sighted people. And browsing without images showing remains common where bandwidth is limited by availability or cost. Hence, providing surrogates for images acquired the primary position in accessibility rule making.


Web standards make it implicit that web content should be perceivable necessitating alternative textual descriptions of graphics. That implementation of this rule is dead simple, to write a description as an accompaniment, denoted by the HTML identifier ALT.

Are ALT tags simple and easy to use?


Well, yes, it’s easy to add such tags. Creating web pages the power user way, with a Notepad, one adds ALT=”the description” to accompany the location , denoted by SRC, of the image. No big deal, but what would the description say? the color of the image? ithe who or where? the artful ambience? The trick here is that the ALT description should give exactly the information needed to place the image usefully in the context of the page, no more, and no less. Ouch, that requires thinking, like why have the image in the first place and what’s its role in the narrative of the page, in addition to attracting eyes and stimulating visual cortexes?


And, wouldn’t you know it, there are more messy questions as described in Web Accessibility Gone Wild from webaim.org. some images are purely decorative and some are used for layout of the page, neither of which require a real ALT description, which would only get in the way of screen readers. And there are charts and graphs where the data displayed is integral to the point of the web page. And some images just take a lot of words to describe. Furthermore, images are often associated with links where the descriptions overlap. Happily, the above article provides good commen sense practices for these situations.

Examples of Accessibility Issues for ALT and images


Images without ALT tags are often cited as “obstacles for the unsighted”, but this Vision Loser has only one experience like this. As described in previous post on “pie charts and literacy” inability to read a pie chart may have doomed my retirement funds during an analysis by my ‘Wealth Manager’. Not really, we’re all doomed, but inability to read the pie chart of asset allocations was a real bummer for me. The problem here is not so much that the pie slice relative sizes and labels were unavailable in a PDF document, but that I could not get my hands into the original data. Pie charts are not so much images as representations of data that stimulate questions about relationships within that data. I am still looking for the pie chart I can manipulate to get those relationships out of the data imprisoned in documents.


Generally, it does help to have image descriptions like ““bicyclists using curb cut in complex intersection” to force my brain into thinking about physical locations and moving objects. But rarely do I find the absence of a good description as a barrier to understanding the content of a page. With low vision myself, I don’t have much practice using images and ALT text, requiring a sighted helper to assure images are what they say.


On the other hand, now that I’m an accessibility advocate, it is annoying to find violations of Rule #1 because this may show a rather serious ignorance of or callousness toward accessibility. I recently found this in a left unnamed output of an NSF project on Broadening Participation in Computing. An excellent project to entice student interest in computing through a journalist pathway produced a newsletter with articles illustrated by images that read out to me as “497” and “2934”. All I could think of was a missed opportunity to raise the awareness of student authors about accessibility issues, like “how would your great-grandpa’s bad eyes read this page?” Our tax dollars should be properly used only when results are fully accessible. But don’t get me started on university and professional organization web sites!

What next for ALT?


Of course, there’s more to graphic media with Flash and animation. But the message of ALT seems to be:

  1. Leave off ALT tags if you want to put up a clear “No blind need apply” sign to your visiting potential clients and students.
  2. Put in the time thinking and checking out your web pages for image usefulness. Turn off images in your browser and see what’s missed. Do images still matter? Are they well supplemented by ALT descriptions?
  3. Decorative images may be vestigial ways of thinking about getting column 2 of text to start at position 43 when that’s going to interfere with text sizing requirements or be bungled in one or another browser. Or, even worse, really stupid cases are when a screen reader reads out “spacer, spacer” between words, indicating you didn’t know how to or care to test with a screen reader.
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The Techie Caregiver Conundrum: Support, Training, and Growth

February 11, 2009

The Techie Caregiver Scenario


You are in your mid-forties, a busy, still employed, computing professional. Family members need your help to maintain their independence and life styles.


Dad recently retired and is bummed out because an elbow injury limits his golf rounds. As a former executive, he’s not really comfortable with computers, keyboards, and Internet dependence (think John Mc Cain). Dad also has a hearing problem in certain frequencies in addition to his sore elbow.


Grandma is a spry octogenarian but her ten year old PC cannot keep up with book club planning, PDF newsletters, and You Tube entertainment. She is developing macular degeneration, with increasing difficulty reading books, newspapers, and the never-ending stream of forms required for transactions, such as banking and insurance.


You, by the way, are in the 5% of the population with significant color blindness that alters your perceptions of web pages and applications displayed on screens.

The Caregiver’s Problems

Besides being a dutiful child, you recognize the long run benefits to all family members of keeping Dad and Grandma independent, happy, and healthy. So, it’s time to think through the situation and do some planning.


It looks like you will have several roles:

  • Tech Support for buying, setting up, and maintaining computers, networks, and phones
  • Trainer on new hardware, software, and business practices
  • Tour guide to show Dad and Grandma the web services, entertainment sites, information sources, and spy ware dangers.
  • Advocate when an extra 0 goes into a credit card payment, a service charge shows up,, insurance change forms get lost, etc.


Groan, this could be really time consuming and cause family friction. What to do?

  1. Where do you learn the technology options for your family needs? Your practices don’t seem appropriate for their specific challenges?
  2. Where can you get support for yourself when times get frustrating? How do you develop the attitude for helping without anybody seeming burdened?
  3. How can you bring some professional growth for yourself? Where do you learn about so-called assistive technologies, accessibility practices, and technology trends that meld generational differences with your company’s product lines?
  4. Hey, there must be some business opportunities here since your family elders are typical consumers with social needs that match the national costs of health care, citizen involvement, lifelong learning, and longer active life spans.

Fast forward a few months

Ok, Dad and Grandma have new, remarkably affordable notebooks, home wireless, and a bunch of web service accounts. But there have been several surprises:

  1. Dad cannot adjust to the notebook keyboard, and refuses to use the typing tutor you bought.
  2. Grandma loves using high contrast black displays that complicate your explanations over the phone, since you see even more differently than the color blindness you’re used to.
  3. Dad likes his mp3 player but cannot get the hang of transferring files, sync, and storage limits.
  4. Grandma learned about a handheld thing called Victor Reader something that will read books to her now that she has overcome Synthetic Voice shock.

    Follow up on this scenario: helping the caregiver

    In a couple of months, I’ll post a list of services, tips, etc. and welcome suggestions to slger123@gmail.com.

    Thought Provoker community inspires me to try a similar challenge for computing communities. Especially with disabilities and seniors on the Obama agenda this is one way to accept responsibility and generate interest in problem solving. I am willing to nag the computing professions to overcome their thoughtlessness and ignorance of relevant technologies and practices, as I was in that attitude and knowledge state myself recently enough to remember and cringe. Also, I’ve had to deal with caregiver issues in my own family, friends, and physical circles. I would appreciate any help in bring Caregiver Assistance into the open and make pragmatic progress.