Taking Accessibility to the Edge with Derek Featherstone


photo: Ben Buchanan

In a few weeks there is going to be the biggest web event of the Western Australian calendar year. Not just the Edge of the Web conference, there is also Webjam, four workshops and the WA Web Awards all in one roller coaster week.

One of the keynote speakers and workshop presenter at the Edge of the Web conference is Derek Featherstone. Derek is particularly renown for his straight forward and often enlightening approach to accessibility.

The other day I took the opportunity to discuss with Derek his motivation, the future of accessibility and his forthcoming workshop.

You were recently in Australia for Web Directions South 2008, last month, and previous to that in 2006, and 2005. And now in a few weeks you are making the trip back down to Australia for the Edge of the Web. So what is it really about Australia that makes it so attractive, or are you just returning to get more triathlon tips?
Since my first trip down under in 2005, I’ve just wanted more and more! The timing always seems perfect – just as we’re starting to turn cold here at home (Ottawa, Canada) – I get to sneak away for a while to the beautiful weather. And, now that I’ve been there for several trips, it really does feel like another home. I’m always welcomed by wonderful people that are really switched on to accessibility, user experience and the web in general. For me, it was a no-brainer to accept the invitation to EOTW.
Recently, in Australia at least, there has been a lot of promotion and discussion on accessibility. To the point that in many circles the case for considering accessibility appears to have been won, allowing web designers and developers alike to relax their guard. This is turn has allowed the government and corporate sector to fall back on believing that accessibility issues are no longer important at all. Given Australia’s soft legislative approach to accessibility how does one get it back on the corporate agenda.

The case for considering accessibility appears to have been won

I’m not sure this is the case at all. I mean, we all say we consider it, but what do we actually do about it. Yes, I’ll admit that in many cases, the battle for “old school” accessibility may have been won, and there are scores of people that put that into practice every single day. But — we need to keep plugging away to move things beyond consideration into action. And – as we continue to innovate on the web, so too, we must with accessibility.

Getting it back on the corporate agenda might be somewhat difficult – I suspect a lot of people think they’re already doing accessibility really well. However, if we simply ask them if their innovations in accessibility are keeping up with the rest of the innovations they are pushing, I think a lot of people will answer that it hasn’t.

Within web application development circles there is a slow
movement off the corporate intranet of RIA systems into the web space. Traditionally this has been seen as a bad thing in terms of accessibility, as Flash and Silverlight have always been seen as the
evil ugly sister in terms of accessibility. But of late there seems to be a change in this perception in terms of accessibility. So is RIA the future over HTML?

Ah, to have a crystal ball

For certain contexts, both now and in the forseeable future, HTML of some sort is a perfectly capable format. For documents, certainly, and even simple web applications, what we have now works, and works quite well.

It can easily be argued that more interactive technologies such as Flash and Silverlight hold much promise and can be much more usable than the most static and traditional HTML format. E-learning and data visualization experiments are prime examples of how these technologies can be used to help communicate our messages in an engaging and interactive way to everyone.

There are loads of great examples of how these technologies come together to create interactive narratives at (the aptly named) http://www.interactivenarratives.org. The site was founded by Andrew DeVigal, who currently serves as the multimedia editor of The New York Times. The work he has done there is brilliant in terms of how it
engages the person viewing the site. What if we could take that same approach to web applications and create an immersive means to interact with data and with each other?

Yes. I’d still like that crystal ball, please.

Over the last two years the relevancy of the W3C and all it’s
forcoming guidelines has been drawn into question, time and time again. Of note in this area in terms of accessibility are the upcoming WCAG 2 and WAI-ARIA, are you confident these two are going
to make any impact at all.

Yes, actually, I am.

WCAG 2 takes a big step forward to provide guidance for making things accessible that aren’t necessarily HTML. It will help with creating accessible PDFs, Silverlight, Flash, and other technologies that are yet to come. For that reason alone, I’m excited about WCAG 2 — its technology agnostic approach will help developers meet accessibility needs.

Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) has been in the works for some time, and we’re finally seeing support in mainstream browsers and assistive technologies. I’ll be perfectly honest – we needed it to be ready about three years ago, so when it finally does come about, it’ll be most welcome. It is a missing piece to the puzzle of accessible RIAs right now, so I’m very happy to see continued progress on that front.

While you are in Australia next month you are presenting a workshop at the Edge of the Web. Hat tip by the way for your Web Directions Workshop. Is this workshop going to be the usual cold theory of accessibility 101 that we have seen trotted out by various accessibility consultants over the years or will it be different and have that “Featherstone” magic.
I’m ecstatic you enjoyed the full-day version in Sydney at Web Directions South — the workshop I’m doing at EOTW will be the same core content in a half-day. Our goal is to share experiences, ideas and solutions with designers and developers so that they can walk away with concepts and techniques that help them question their practices and those of their teams. Definitely not Accessibility 101, and hopefully magic!

Thanks Derek and I’ll see you at the Edge of the Web.

So if you are interested in accessibility or just feel you need to learn a little more on this critical subject, I would be getting along to Derek’s keynote Journey to the Edge of the Web and workshop Real World Accessibility for Ajax and Web Apps on the Edge of the Web.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Looks like there is no conversation here yet, why not start one.