iPad Accessibility

I’ve just had a very quick look at the Apple’s latest and much awaited offering – the iPad. I say, a “quick look”, because I haven’t yet been able to wrestle it from the grasp of its new owner. However, I did manage to request a demo of the accessibility features.

How can something so visual, which relies on accurate touch, be made accessible? The form factor has a lot to do with it. The iPad is much larger than the iPod Touch and iPhone (not quite a sheet of A4) so Apple has more room to play with, which helps. The extra real estate means icons for the apps can be selected with even the largest or most arthritic of fingers unlike the iPod Touch or iPhone, which require almost pianistic dexterity.

There are accessibility settings for text-to-speech and magnification, although you’d probably need someone to set the settings on first use. This changes the gestures required to use the device, e.g. for magnification a three-finger swipe will increase the size, etc. But for me, the way the device works for visually impaired people really caught my attention. By selecting the Voice Over (text-to-speech) setting, every time the user touches the screen anywhere, a box highlights the text and the name of the app is read out. The required app can be selected by tapping. This means that visually impaired users can still navigate and select the various apps on what looks like a completely visual interface.

The iPad comes with a free e-book – Winnie the Pooh – and I was intrigued to see how this would be handled. The book has images and I was pleasantly surprised to hear them described. The descriptions were far more descriptive than alt text. The image of Pooh sitting outside his house was charmingly described, even down to the “childish writing” of the sign saying “Mr Sanders”. OK – I guess it’s down to the publishers of e-books to ensure that their books are accessible (and also to the app developers), but it does show what can be done.

These comments have only been made on the briefest of looks at the iPad and there will no doubt be some accessibility “gotchas”, but I think the size of the device has made a huge difference to the way in which accessibility can be handled.

So now, I’m going to see if I can distract the iPad’s new owner so I can have another quick look, but unless It’s by something equally as innovative, I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance!

There’s no Algorithm for Common Sense!

Virtual Hosting.com has drawn up a list of 25 Free Website Checkers, with a brief description of what each one does.  The checkers are split into handy sections – General, Disability, and Usability – but automated checkers will only check the easy bits – e.g. colour contrast, HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) code, etc – i.e. the bits for which an algorithm can be written. 

However, whilst a website checker can check that alt text, for example, is used with an image and will tell you if it’s missing, it can’t actually tell you whether what that alt text actually makes sense.  For example, alt text of “an image” or “asdfg” is not going be very useful to someone who doesn’t download images or for someone who uses tooltips to find out the relevance of the image (particularly where a description or title hasn’t been provided).  So developers and content authors need a hefty dose of common sense to make sure that the aspects of a website that can’t automatically be checked by a computer are actually usable and accessible.

It’s often quoted (but I can’t remember by whom) that one could implement the whole of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and still end up with an inaccessible site. Whilst an automated checker might find that the site is accessible based on a simple checklist, a human may find it unusable.  Human involvement in checking accessibility is still necessary and as well as common sense, an understanding of accessibility issues and context is also required.  For example, whilst a photo of Winston Churchill might have the alt text of “Photo of Winston Churchill”, if the photo is illustrating a particular point, it could be more relevant to say “Photo of Winston Churchill smoking a cigar” or “Photo of Winston Churchill in London in 1949″, depending on context.

So whilst automated web accessibility checkers have their uses, it’s important to remember that they generally don’t include an algorithm for common sense!

One Person’s Strategy is Another’s Barrier

Accessibility is very personal – what works for one person may not work for another.  The “one size fits all” approach has been tried and although admirable in its intentions has often proved difficult to implement.

The W3C WCAG (World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Guidelines) v 1.0 tried a technical approach to accessibility by setting out a number of accessibility guidelines, which could be automatically tested by online validators such as Bobby. Whilst this automatic validation can validate the HTML code, many of guidelines require human input and common sense.  For example, whilst an automated accessibility validator can check that an image has an alt text tag, it cannot check that the tag actually makes sense.  People who don’t use images, such as those using mobile technologies or visually impaired people still need to know whether an image is important to the content or not.  An image with an alt tag of “image01.jpg” gives no information to website users, whilst an alt tag of “Photograph of Winston Churchill” would not only aid navigation through a web page, but it would also provide information that the image does not provide additional information to the text, so the user knows they are not missing out on anything.  As well as this, users could hover a mouse over the image to see the alt text.  This could be useful where an image doesn’t have a text caption underneath.

Difficulties with adhering to such guidelines and standards can cause barriers for people because content developers may then try to produce content to the lowest common denominator, i.e. text only.  Although text can be easily accessed by people using screen readers, it can be difficult for people with dyslexia to read and is visually unappealing.  So in this case, whilst the content is accessible for people using screen readers, it is less accessible for people with dyslexia.

Despite the drawbacks, this standardisation (“one size fits all”) approach is important.  Without a set of guidelines, developers may not know where to begin with accessibility and may not approach the basics in the same way, thereby reducing interoperability with assistive and other technologies.

One way to complement the standards approach is to produce alternative but equivalent versions of content.  For example, transcripts can be provided for podcasts, text heavy content can be offered as with animations or images or in simple language for people with learning disabilities or language learners.  This holistic approach has been proposed by Kelly, Phipps, and Howell in Implementing a Holistic Approach to e-Learning Accessibility.  This approach also takes student learning styles and pedagogy into account as well as technical and usablity issues.

Standards and guidelines are important but they need to be used with common sense and in combination with other approaches. Standards and guidelines can help with the physical presentation of the content, whilst holistic and other approaches can help the user to interact and use that content in the format best suited to their needs.

Should alt text be used to paint a thousand words?

We’ve all been told that alt text is an essential part of web accessibility, but how much detail do we actually need to include and who should do it?

There’s been some discussion over on the DC-Accessibility JISCMail Discussion List (February 2007, “Not Accessible or Adaptable”) about a lot of issues, including whether alt text should always be added to an image. One contributor to the discussion gave a link to a slideshow of dance photographs, where:

“the author refused to label the images with text… his argument being that the photographers images capture and demonstrate an emotional experience, and that whilst text can perform the same expression, he’s not the person to annotate them.”

The photographs in question are various stills from dance rehearsals and performances.  There is no accompanying text of any kind, but most people would probably recognise that the people in the photos were involved in some sort of dance medium from the clothes being worn, the environment, and from the positions of the bodies.  However, unless one knows the language of dance or the context in which the dance is being performed, the photos may have no further meaning – and could therefore be inaccessible to some people.

This actually brings up several issues:

1. How can one describe an image that expresses emotion or abstract concepts?

2.  If such concepts can be described, who should be responsible (and have the capability) for doing so?

3.  Where does alt text fit into all this?

1. Describing Emotion and Abstract Concepts

So is it possible to extract emotional and abstract meanings and describe them for people who do not have a concept or understanding of such areas?  The Dayton Art Institute Access Art Website has attempted to do so.  For each artwork on the Access Art website, there is an image, a section on the artwork in context, comments by the Art Director (including an audio commentary) and a description of the artwork. Each section is no more than a couple of paragraphs. For example, the description of Frishmuth’s “Joy of the Waters” has attempted to put across abstract concepts such as the mood of the statue:

“The girl’s springing, energetic step, joyful expression, and animated hair create an exuberant mood and suggest that she may be a water sprite.” (Marianne Richter, Dayton Art Institute)

This helps make the artwork become more accessible for visually impaired people and for people who do not know the language of art. 

2. Responsibility for Describing Images

The people best qualified to describe a visual resource are probably the people who have decided it should be included in the first place.  For example, someone with archaeological experience is probably best placed to describe an image of a stone tool, whilst a geography tutor may be the most suitable person to describe a meteorological image from a satellite put onto the university’s VLE (Virtual Learning Environment).

The descriptions used will also differ depending on the image’s intended audience.  A museum generally has a wide public audience with many different levels of understanding and access requirements, whilst a Geography department may only have a small number of students at a fairly high level of understanding. 

So, unless the photographer in the quote above, is also versed in the language of dance, he is unlikely to be able to describe the dance photos he has taken.  Even if he were, he would also need to be aware of the level at which they needed to be pitched in terms of language, description, and audience. 

3. Use of alt Text

So where does alt text fit into all this?  The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) recommends providing:

“…a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”,  or in element content)… For complex content (e.g., a chart) where the “alt” text does not provide a complete text equivalent, provide an additional description using, for example, “longdesc” with IMG or FRAME, a link inside an OBJECT element, or a description link.”

Therefore, alt text should be used for every image (even empty alt text should be used for spacers and decorative images), but it should only provide a brief text description of the image – the Guidelines on ALT Texts in IMG Elements recommends no more than 50 characters.  Longer descriptions of an image, such as those describing complex images, emotions, or abstract concepts, should not be included as alt text, but should either be attached as a separate link (perhaps using the longdesc or d-link elements) or added next to the image. 

Alt text can also be different for different audiences and purposes (see WebAIM’s Communicating the Purpose of the Graphic) and does not necessarily need to be completed by experts.  However, although the photos of the dancers should have had alt text, they may well have needed someone with a knowledge of dance to add it.  Basic alt text, such as “photo of dance students” could have been added by anyone but would there be any benefit to seeing roughly the same alt text added to over 80 images?  A choreographer would be capable of adding more informative alt text, such as stating the dance step or intention, e.g. “photo of a dancer in fifth position”, particularly where the intended audience was other dancers or dance students. 

Alt text is a requirement under the WCAG guidelines, but it shouldn’t be used to describe an image in a thousand words – these have to be written elsewhere.