How Accessible is "Accessible"?
A number of weeks back, I wrote an entry called, “Radio Radio,” in which I mentioned that I would start doing broadcast radio reporting for WMNF 88.5 here in the Tampa Bay area. I attend training classes every Saturday morning and, yesterday, got approval to do my first full fledged piece for actual radio play.
My first real story will discuss the accessibility problems with many important Tampa Bay area informational web sites. While I have found web accessibility interesting and important for a long time, I had rarely looked at local, Tampa Bay based web pages. As part of our news training, we must take a local news quiz every week as WMNF is, after all, a community based station and their editorial group feels that their reporters should follow the goings on in the community. For obvious reasons, I can’t read the local papers in print form so I ventured out to read the “Metro” sections on the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune web sites.
Here, the fun, or lack thereof, begins. Using JAWS and FBSA as my screen readers, I set out to do my assignment and read about our local city and county governments and happenings in the Tampa Bay area. What I found when I looked disappointed greatly. The Tampa Tribune web site is better organized than the St. Pete Times but the first three links at the top of each page have no labels. The St. Petersburg Times, the local paper of record, has so many accessibility problems that, although it can, with great patience, be read with a screen reader, it is an efficiency nightmare. I simply do not have the time on my hands to wade through stacks of unlabeled gibberish to find the stories I might be interested in reading. Unlike sites that don’t change too often, using JAWS’ Virtual Find feature doesn’t help as I don’t know what to search for as, if I did, I’d already have read the story and wouldn’t need to find it anyway.
As a bone tossed to the accessibility cause, the St. Pete Times provides a “text only” alternative to its busy and marginally accessible regular site. As I’ve written before, text only pages are not an adequate solution to accessibility problems. I frankly don’t care what Raman says, separate but equal isn’t. Well crafted web sites can provide 100% compliance with accessibility standards and guidelines without losing an iota of visual appeal. The people who still use text-only browsers in a text console environment have the source code and can make their little browsers comply with the user agent guidelines if they would simply stop whining that it’s no longer 1985 and that graphical environments are here to stay. Any blink who pushes for a text-only ghetto solution is doing the entire community a disservice and should shut up and go home. It’s the 21st century, get over it.
Some of my friends who use Windows based screen readers, however, argue that even marginal accessibility is better than what we had twenty-five years ago so we should not yell too loudly about sites that do not comply fully with the various guidelines and standards for accessibility. This puts us back at the glass being half full or half empty discussion that I’ve written about in the past. Twenty-five years ago, I could see very well so I frankly cannot identify with my friends who were blind then and now enjoy access to a lot of things the Internet has to offer that they didn’t have back in 1980. At the same time, people with no disability didn’t have much of an Internet back in 1982 and, today, have profoundly greater access to the myriad online wonders than we blinks do. Sure, some web sites read visually are poorly designed and visually cluttered but a sighted reader doesn’t have to hear the noisy crap babbled by a screen reader on an unlabeled link and, in some cases, have to decipher the noise as that link is the only way from one page to another.
So, I ask my readers, how compliant does a web site need to be to be considered accessible?
Does everything need to be labeled or is having an pile of unlabeled links as well as links with worthwhile text accessible in spite all of the noise a screen reader user needs to endure? Does the text on labeled links need to be useful or is having four or five consecutive “click here” links adequate? Does the site need to include headings and other tags useful for efficient navigation in order to be called accessible? What is the threshold of compliance that makes a site “accessible” to a screen reader user?
My personal opinion is that we blinks need to try to force 100% compliance as, with anything less, we’re going to get crap. If we push for 100% compliance, we’ll be lucky to get 75% so accepting anything less gives a free pass to web developers as regards the discrimination, intentional or otherwise, caused by the lack of compliance. What do you think?
I need a few audio quotes for my radio piece. If you are a web accessibility expert, please contact me if you are interested in adding a sound bite.