Archive for July, 2007

My multiple sclerosis and web accessibility

With all the excitement this week of my wife and kids going on holiday, and my crazy bachelor life installing Ubuntu and upgrading WordPress (don’t tell my wife, will you?) I completely forgot to mark an anniversary—it’s eight years since I was diagnosed with MS.

I’m pleased to say I’m still well. In fact, I’m better than I was three years ago when I bid my MS a happy fifth birthday, as I’ve given up smoking and taken up karate.

One thing that has changed in three years is that I do more speaking at conferences about accessibility, and I tend to mention the fact that I have a disability. It’s not because I’m trying to claim any moral authority (after all, I have a disability but I’m not disabled) but because I’m declaring a personal interest.

Recently, I was asked whether my interest in web accessibility is solely due to my MS. After a good hard think, I declare my answer to be no.

My first encounters with the web were in 1999 when my wife was pregnant and I could get no English-language information out in Thailand, so went to the Web. When I was diagnosed as having MS, my doctors gave me a photocopy from an English medical book talking in doctorese about how to recognise MS from autopsy photographs of brains. Not that useful, and not exactly encouraging, so I remembered my happy experience with pregnancy sites and turned to the Web again for information, and found it via Jooly’s Joint—a large community of people, many far less mobile or dextrous than myself, working together and supporting each other. And just, well, getting on with life. So I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with it, too.

Community and communication are the things that I love about the web. For example, in Iran, mad theocratic regimes try to ban free expression, but there are Iranian blogs everywhere, with people telling their truths to anyone who’ll listen. Online communities gather around music, sports, eBay crap, politics, even web standards. The driver for this was the simplicity of html, and the forgiving nature of browsers, that made “making a website” a reasonably easy task.

Preserving the low barrier to entry is why I find the obsession with serving webpages as XML to be foolish. What’s the point of a site that breaks completely if there’s an unencoded ampersand? Sure, data for banks, finances, payrolls needs to be unambiguously parsable well-formed XML, but Web content needs more forgiving consumption, because Web content isn’t merely data—it’s communication. Imagine refusing to take your fingers out of your ears until your foreign friend speaks perfectly grammatically correct English.

I’ve given the HTML 5 crew a hard time, and some of their participants seem shamefully dismissive of people with disabilities, but their belief in “fault-tolerant” browsers and markup, and their wish to make the core elements of the language as accessible as possible are entirely in keeping with my views on the absolute necessity of making web content easy to write.

That low barrier to entry for writing web content needs a parallel low barrier to entry for accessing that information. The web is such an exciting medium because it’s the easiest to access for people with disabilities if you code it correctly, and for the most part, coding it properly is not hard. Headings, sensible link text, alt text sorts out most problems.

I passionately believe that communication should be easy, and I’ve an opportunity to influence the development of the web by evangelising to organisations, individuals, producing books, articles and participating in mailing lists and forums.

One reason that I mark the anniversary of my diagnosis is that there’s a rule of thumb that says your condition ten to fifteen years after diagnosis is a rough indicator of your long-term prospects. There’s no guarantee, of course: in five years time I could be in a wheelchair or unable to speak.

Even if that does happen, I’ll still want to read the news, chat with friends, buy music and generally surf the web, and I’ll be on your case if your websites are inaccessible to me.

It’s true that my own circumstance makes my evangelism more urgent, and (perhaps) more heartfelt. But it doesn’t mean that if you’ve got no disability, you shouldn’t care. You should.

Sex n Drugs n Real-World Accessibility, London, August 8

You bring the drugs, and we’ll tell you about real-world accessibility at the second Real World Accessibility Workshop (by popular demand after the success of the first).

Highlights include

  • Ann McMeekin AKA “Pixeldiva” of the RNIB on “How disabled users use the web”
  • Patrick “Herb” Lauke on “Too much accessibility – good intentions, badly implemented”
  • The Tom Jones of the access world, Grant Broome, on “GIS, PDF and other monsters in the closet”
  • The John Holmes of ex-local authority webmasters, Dan Champion, on “Quality assurance – testing, monitoring and maintaining accessibility”
  • The rakishly handsome and debonair Ian Lloyd on “Real world examples of common accessiblity cock-ups in the wild”
  • .. And yours truly, introducing the day with “Web Accessibility: What, Why, How, and Who Cares?”

This time, it’s open to all – not just public sector workers. Note that we’re not trainers or theorists; we all work, day in and day out, on making real websites accessible.

Tell them I sent you on the booking form – they buy me a pint for every referral, and I’ll snog you afterwards. With tongues.