Christian Heilmann

⚡️Finite Incatatem – my keynote at Accessibility 2.0

Friday, September 25th, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Last week I was (for a change) back in London to give my first keynote for a conference. Accessibility 2.0, the conference by AbilityNet brought people to hear all about the marvels of accessibility in the modern web world.

To comply with Murphy’s law I arrived late for my own keynote. Here’s what happened:

I had just arrived back from Madrid where I had given a talk at a developer evening the day before and the first planes into Heathrow 3 do circle for half an hour and then get delayed to go to the main building (bus vs. air bridge). In addition to that Heathrow 3 has neither fast track nor Iris scan so I got even further delayed. I then took the Heathrow Express and got stuck on the Circle line platform. To work around I changed to Bakerloo and got out at Oxford Circus to take the last trip on the Victoria line to end up in a cab to be at the Microsoft office in time. That, I failed to do and the poor organisers had to shift around some talks so I am very sorry about that.

After arriving and changing my completely soaked shirt (all the tubes were packed) I changed into my trusty hacker T-Shirt and got on with the keynote. In it I tried to instill the audience with a sense of empowerment that anybody can help the accessibility cause – no matter how technically blessed. I hope I did succeed. If anything, I managed to make people stand up, grab their bums and say they’ll help to make accessibility work .

Following are the slides and my detailed notes of the keynote. Sadly enough I forgot to do my own audio recording, but there will be an official one once AbilityNet got around to releasing them.

The slides

All the links in the slides are available on delicious.

Notes and transcript

Finite Incatatem – Accessibility is not Dark Magic

Finite Incatatem is the spell in the Harry Potter books that stops a previous spell. Today I want to end the spell that lies on accessibility and makes people believe that it is dark magic and very hard to make work. It isn’t and all of you have what it takes to make accessibility the norm rather than the exception.

Last year’s accessibility 2.0 has been very insipring to me.

Stuff I’ve done

Following the requests and the talks I developed and started a few cool things. Easy YouTube is a simpler interface to YouTube and we have great demo videos of owith videos of users with learning disabled users and blind users now being empowered to watch and consume YouTube content. Scripting Enabled was a conference that had real information about disability and a second day of developers trying to build alternative interfaces like Easy YouTube to work around the barriers we heard about on the first day.

This calls for celebration, doesn’t it? Well to a degree, I did have some impact and I did have some successes, but I failed to really spark a movement with this. While there were some translations and extensions of Easy Youtube, not much happened with the Scripting Enabled hacks and even worse only one other Scripting Enabled was held. This is an unconference idea and it should have mushroomed.

The lack of movement

It is actually very easy – Sir Isaac Newton defined it for us:

F = ma – “the net force on an object is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration.”

There is no big impact of accessibility as whilst we are a mass we fail to have a movement. We do move around a lot, but we do not push in the same direction. That way we extend our energy and achieve nothing.

We are a mass but not a force, and as we don’t push in the same direction we don’t have much impact.

What are the reasons?

There are several reasons for this. One of the first ones is that we are too stuffy. Many a time you see accessibility presentations that are a flood of bullet points, quoting laws and guidelines and utterly failing to engage the audience. This is ironic as at the same time we want the web to be simple English and only the necessary amount of content to avoid readers getting overwhelmed.

We’re the grumpy guys in the corner complaining about everything – like Stadler and Waldorf of the Muppet show but without being funny. In order to be a success we should put a smile on accessibility.

People like happy things and are happy to help them. One great example for that is Tweenbots. A tweenbot is a very simple little robot that moves at a steady speed in one direction. They have a little smiley on them and a flag that asks people to help them get to a certain destination. In an exercise people left a tweenbot in a large park and filmed the reaction of people to it. The flag said simply “help me get to the south west end of the park” and the video is wonderful to see.

The social web problem

Last year we bitched a lot about the inaccessibility of Web 2.0. Nowadays we do embrace the social web as a way to deliver our message, right?

Let’s take a look at the upcoming conference with the lovely title of “Breaking the barriers between Stakeholders: Bringing together service providers, policy makers and suppliers of Information & Communication Technology for People with Disabilities”. The title of the conference is already 40 characters longer than a Twitter update! And abbreviating it to the easy to remember hashtag #BTBBSBTSPPMASOIACTFPWD doesn’t sound quite like a winner to me either.

The social web has a massive impact if we use it right. A great example for that is Colalife. Colalife is a charity that wanted to send medication into areas in this world that badly need it. They analyzed the traffic of goods world-wide and realised that Coca Cola had distribution channels for their cooled goods world-wide. They then designed a medication pack that could fit in between the bottles of a crate of bottles and asked Coca Cola to bring the medication to the third world. They loved the idea but didn’t want to do it. Colalife then used the social web – Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and so on – to create a massive distributed petition and Coca Cola caved in. Using the social web we now bring medication for free to people who need it.

The technology problem

Another whipping boy of the accessibility world is technology. Web technologies are not good enough, computers are hard to upgrade and interfaces too complex. One company showed though that this can be different. Nintendo showed with the Wii game console that if you use natural and known ways to interact with a system you have a massive success on your hands. Instead of using a keyboard or a game controller with a complex sequence of buttons you play the Wii by moving the game controller like you would in the real world. If you play tennis you need to move the controller like a tennis racket.

This makes it very easy to use and there is a wonderful video of old people playing the Wii without needing any introduction or explanation. Another great example is a hospital replacing their expensive rehab hardware with a Wii and Wii Fit (and calling it Wiihab).

TV interfaces

The simple controller aside, the Wii has another big benefit – it uses a TV set to play on. As a TV is much more common and known to end users than a monitor is that works around an initial fear of technology. Interestingly enough there is a YouTube interface for the TV, too, which is much easier to use than the web interface and much more accessible to keyboard users. More and more technology will move to the TV - a great opportunity for accessibility.

Talking about the iPhone and other smart phones

Another thing the accessibility world complained loudly about was the iPhone – a smart phone that only comes with a touch interface and thus is totally inaccessible to blind users, right? Not the case, as Marco Zehe of Mozilla reports on his blog he is perfectly capable of using the iPhone despite being blind. The reason is that Apple included their free screen reader VoiceOver with the iPhone operating system the same way it is included in the main Mac operating system – something other providers should consider doing, too.

The iPhone is right now a red hot development platform and whilst a lot of frivolous and pointless apps are being built there is also the start of an accessibility application interest to be found.

SoundAmp for example is an application that turns the iPhone into a sound enhancer (they call it a hearing aid but that is not quite the case). iSign is a training program on the iPhone for learning the American Sign Language.

At the iPhone devcamp in California one of the hack teams built Senyala. Senyala is an iPhone application that doesn’t have an interface at all but instead uses the touch screen to turn gestures into sentences thus allowing people who can’t speak to communicate. It supports several languages and is now also being ported to the Palm Pre smartphone. Check out the Senyala demo video and the interview I’ve done with the developers. They are now asking for feedback from the sign community not to re-invent the wheel with yet another gesture language.

Nokia also released an experimental Braille reader for their phones which shows Braille on the touch screen and feeds back to the user if they touched a raised part of the braille glyph or not. Whilst this is a terribly slow way of reading on a phone it at least raises the public profile of Braille and as they ask for feedback we should give them constructive criticism.

Augmented reality

Another great new concept is Augmented Reality which means that you overlay live video footage of mobile phones with ineractive elements. One example is a London Tube application that shows arrows how to get to the next tube station on your iPhone or a real estate application showing you the physical distance of flats to rent on a Google phone. The simplicity of watching the video image and getting extra information overlays could be used for accessible interfaces, too, and if we got our fingers in that pie we’d be right up there with the cool kids.

Talking about kids, TopTrumps also have a pretty cool AR application which uses barcodes on the back of the cards. If kids install some software and show these cards to their web cam they get 3D animations of the cards, can take part in quizzes and play top trumps over the web with each other. This same concept could be used to help people communicate with pre-defined sentence cards for example.

Integration issues

Another thing we love lamenting about is the lack of integration of disabled people in the community. One thing that made me go “wow” happened at a concert of the Death Metal band “Cannibal Corpse” in the States lately. One of their fans was bound to an electrical wheel chair and showed his appreciation to the band by turning on the spot almost doing a burnout. The other fans, instead of seeing him as an annoyance or not part of the whole gig, picked him up, gave him a great Viking helmet and put him up to the band to enjoy the last song. If hairy loud and unruly metal heads are fine with seeing a wheelchair user as one of them, how come local councils still have issues with it?

Isn’t it all too geeky?

The whole of web 2.0 and the social web is all too often considered too geeky for us “normal people” in the accessiblity world. Well, one example that should show you that web 2.0 is about people and not only about early technology adopters is Ravelry. Ravelry is a knitting and crocheting community on the web and you’d expect that to be a very small and geek-shunted site, right? Far from it. In an interview with the owner of Ravelry we find out their real numbers:

  • 430,000 registered users – about 70,000 in a day.
  • 3.6 million pageviews per day – registered users only.
  • 10 million actual request per day.
  • 900 new users sign up per day.
  • 50,000 new posts being written each day.
  • 2.3 million knitting/crochet projects
  • 19 million forum posts,
  • 13 million private messages,
  • 8 million photos (the majority are hosted by Flickr).

Many tech companies can only dream of these figures, so let’s not mention the web 2.0 thing as being something for geeks only again.

Lack of honesty and overly zealous branding is the real problem

Most of the time we are inaccessible because of a lack of honesty. Rather than admitting that a site cannot easily be made accessible companies try to hush things over. One great example for things being done wrong but at least being honest about it was a sign I got from someone in New Zealand. It states “In case of fire do not use the lift, use the stairs instead – and if you are in a wheelchair – good luck”.

The main thing we are not honest about is that we are far too close to our brands to really make a difference. As explained in the chapter on branding and competition of my developer evangelism handbook it is perfectly possible to advertise your company without mentioning it all the time and by collaborating and praising the competition. I am living proof of that. In the accessibility world, however, I don’t see much collaboration and we keep doing the same surveys and research papers as long as we can put our logos on the top of them rather than building on each other’s findings and creating a knowledge pool. This has to stop. We are here to help people, not to profile ourselves.

By concentrating too much on the brand and our own company we failed to produce flagship examples of good web sites that are beautiful and accessible. Take Shopmobility for example. A site clearly aimed at the accessible community and a terrible site that even sports a massive chunk of blue text on blue background. The RNIB with its great message that “accessible web sites don’t need to be ugly” had a less than pleasing look for a long time. This has improved a lot but there are still some big issues to think about.

Links and URLs are even more important than look and feel

The web is based on links and URLs – these are the things that tie different web sites with each other and make the web a web. All of our URLs have to be understandable, portable and easy to share – you could say accessible. For example if I want to show you photos of unicorns on flickr, the URL to that is:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/unicorns

If I wanted to show Panda photos, guess what:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/pandas

If I want to read about JK Rowling’s web site which is a great case study of how to make accessible the URL for that on the RNIB site was:

http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/publicwebsite/public_jkrowling.hcsp

That for example in an email sent to me would make me wonder if it is a virus! Even worse, with the redesign of the RNIB web site the URL structure changed and the page thousands of people wrote about, bookmarked and shared with their friends is not available any more. This is betraying the trust of the community to tell people about our resources and is very detrimental to the cause.

It is simple:

  • Links should be readable and predictable. This applies to both the text in them and the URL they point to – after all every bookmark will have the title of the link text.
  • If possible, links should never change
  • If links change, redirect them to the same target or at least to one with similar content

The new RNIB structure is slightly better but still far too long and verbose:

http://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/webaccessibility/accessiblewebsitedirectory/Pages/accessible_website_directory.aspx

I can only guess that the words in the file name (ending in .aspx) are supposed to help with search engine optimzation. If that was the case it backfired as search engines do consider words separated with dashes as words but not those separated with underscores. In any case as this is an important resource this would be enough:

http://www.rnib.org.uk/accessible-websites/

Another ironic touch is that the second example of an accessible site in the “Charity and public sector” section is linking to the site we are on at the moment and that is not only a usability no-no but also makes us look arrogant.

Disclaimer: I do not hate the RNIB and I am sure there are reasons why the site is in this stage. Most likely these are of bureaucratic and methodic nature. I simply point out that as the flagship organization and resource we should do better. Developers judge the whole accessibility community by these examples and if you stand in the lime-light, you’d better be nicely dressed and well groomed.

Good examples are possible

Yahoo’s currency converter is an example how things could be done. It is a dynamic web application that looks great, works exactly the way you expect it to (without JavaScript you reload the page, with it all is smoother and more dynamic) and is fully screen reader accessible. Yahoo’s new homepage features a Facebook module that allows screen reader users to access Facebook – something that doesn’t work on the site itself.

Whenever I show these examples I get the remark that this is because of the great developers Yahoo has and that a small company doesn’t have the chance to be as effective. This is once again making accessiblity the job of the developer which it isn’t – if management, design and product people don’t tag along you’ll never have an accessible product. However, the main bulk of the work and the push to get these products accessible came from the developers of them and their tenacity to make management and product understand the need for an accessible interface.

Andrew Phillipo, Artur Ortega, Todd Kloots, Ian Pouncey, Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis, Mike Davies, Victor Tsaran, Nicolas Zakas and Dirk Ginader (amongst others) did a great job and showed that a simple formula is what is needed:

passion + talent = accessibility

Passing on the knowledge

Our job now is to get out of our own little world and educate the world about accessibility and the issues bad web development and design causes. We don’t do a good job with this as we always try to excuse ourselves by saying that we don’t understand technology and its ins and outs. The point is though that as someone who advocates accessibility you don’t need to know everything but all you need to do is to listen, collaborate and communicate with the right people in the right format.

Last year’s Paris Web conference had a great example of Aurelien Levy and Stephane Deschamps showing and teaching accessibility by explaining the problems using magic tricks and making people from the audience experience the issues by blindfolding them or only allowing them to use one hand to use interfaces. This is what we need to do more – bring the human aspect into our presentations and trainings instead of banging on about guidelines and laws and minute technological solutions.

Teaching needs passion and hard work

It is amazing just how fast we throw in the towel when it comes to teaching people about accessibility. What we should never forget is that teaching is hard – especially when it not only means transferring knowledge but also changing mindsets. And that is something we have to do if we want to make this accessibility thing work.

There is a great example of that where dedication in teaching yielded amazing results. In this video interview of 1930 you can see how Anne Sullivan taught the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to speak by allowing her to touch her nose, lips and throat and mimicking what she felt. This is as intrusive as it gets when it comes to teaching. I am not sure I’d have the patience of having my face touched for weeks on end but the result is nothing short but miraculous.

Be up to date with your screen reader information

One thing accessibility suffers from is that we are not up to date with newest technologies. For starters, every time we talk about screen readers the poster child product is JAWS, which is expensive and closed. From now on I want all of you to talk about NVDA instead, which is free, open source and has much better support for ARIA and other accessibility enhancing techniques.

Accessibility should be like “Made in Germany”

Accessibility should be more like the label “Made in Germany”. The interesting story behind the label is that the UK invented it in 1887 to boost the sales of UK products. This backfired spectacularly and only a few months later “Made in Germany” became a quality indicator and other countries started labeling their products as “made in x”, too.

Accessibility can be the same – if we sell and advocate it the right way. I for one would love to see companies and developers ask for the accessible product as it is the best on the market and not the one built out of guilt or to comply with the law.

So join me in getting off your bottoms and saying “I will make the web more accessible, starting now!”.

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