Paging Dr. Sbaitso

Accessible Rich Media
Some of the best panels and meetups I attended at this year’s SXSW (the famous technology/music/film/designer eyewear festival) were on accessibility and adaptive technology, a good forum to hear what’s stirring in those fields. In particular, it seems like there’s a growing open source movement to provide tools for users with special needs and to help web designers produce accessible content.

Closed source software like JAWS will face a real challenge as open screen readers like the NVDA project become more mature and build on the popularity of other software like Firefox — while NVDA is certainly lacking the features and polish found in the more widely-used commercial products, the price (free vs. $1000) and ease-of-installation certainly make it compelling.

I also learned about the following accessibility-checking programs and Firefox extensions, immediately adding them to my developer’s toolbox:

Content Colour Analyser

  • Colour Contrast Analyser, a great tool available for Windows and OS X that gives you two color pickers: one to choose a foreground color (probably your main text color) and a second to pick a color from the background to compare it with. It then gives you detailed contrast ratio information for the two colors along with clear indicators as to whether your site or application complies with the suggested contrast needed for visually impaired users and for colorblindness. It’s one of those tools that simply works as advertised.
  • Fangs, a screen reader emulator built as a Firefox extension. When run on a page, Fangs displays a mashed-together, color-highlighted, text-only version of your content as a screen reader would read it aloud. If you’re a sighted web developer, this is a handy tool for getting a quick impression of how your page will hold up under JAWS or similar. (Bonus points for having an attractive, accessible website)
  • The Firefox Accessibility Extension from the Illinois Center for Information Technology Accessibility. This tool helps you generate reports on various accessibility issues, can display information about your page’s semantics (headings, list items, links), lets you easily switch into various high contrast modes, etc. It’s a great companion to the awesome Web Developer extension.
  • You should also check out Color Oracle, the cross-platform color blindness simulator. It’s pretty sobering if you have regular vision like I do, and it will make you appreciate that yes, two different hues can be very, very similar-looking to a good portion of your audience, and yes that’s a big problem.

(It goes without saying that these are useful but imperfect tools, never capable of giving you the full insight that would come from actual user testing. The only real way to know what real frustrations an impaired user will have with your new web app or site? Get one to come in and give it a spin!)

The other good news coming out of the past couple of weeks is the support the major browser makers are giving to the WAI-ARIA suite of standards for making web applications and forms and controls more semantic and accessible. Opera 9.5, Firefox 3, and now even IE8 (imperfectly?) are slated to support ARIA (whither Safari?). The Secrets of JavaScript Libraries panel discussion at SXSW also brought news that jQuery will soon join the Dojo toolkit in supporting ARIA-enabled widgets (I think that’s where I heard the news, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

These are the kinds of open source projects that I really dig: good for users, good for shaking up the established software licensing model, and good for helping solidify support for web standards. Know of any other good tools?

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