Tuesday 17 December 2002

Conversation with Joe Clark: 01

Yesterday I reviewed Building Accessible Websites, the new book by Toronto journalist, author, and accessibility consultant, Joe Clark. Today and for the next couple of days I’ll be posting Joe responses to a series of questions about the book, his background, and accessibility in general. If you’d like to learn even more, then visit Joe’s Media Access website, “the starting point for everything you ever wanted to know about captioning, audio description, Web accessibility, and related topics.” Now, on to the first question:

Would you describe how and why your interest in Web accessibility developed?

Actually, I’ve been interested in what is now known as accessibility for over 20 years.

I credit Geoff Freed at WGBH for having brought up the topic of Web accessibility, which I believe was about five years ago and in the context of a design competition for a symbol to identify accessible Web sites. (Not a very good idea, obviously, since sites should simply be accessible and all the candidate designs, including the winner, were poor examples of graphic design, but it got me started.)

I then began reading. Really, that’s all you can do to start. At the time, I had a lot of knowledge of accommodation for blind or deaf people and a smattering of other accessibility expertise, but I knew nothing about accessible Web development, and pretty much no one else did, either—remember, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were not released until 1999.

I have a history that parallels other people’s, but I start from a different place. I used to think captioning was terrifically interesting (it’s the field I started out with) but audio description was too weird and extraneous. I now consider description the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then I added Web accessibility to my range of interests, and, having given up on a definition of accessibility that restricts itself to disabled people, I have since read everything I can about two very old accessibility forms related to language, subtitling and dubbing. So it was a series of upgrades and a few cases of overcoming denial. I think people new to the field will have similar experiences— they find out about topic X, maybe can handle that topic but think Y is just too weird to worry about, and later, over time, come to understand that X and Y are important and so is Z, a topic they had not imagined before. (Web accessibility, PDF, and Flash could sit in for X, Y, and Z in that example.)

Had you met some disabled Web users, perhaps while working on a particular Web site? Did your commitment to accessibility increase over time or was there a sudden flash of understanding that this was a crucial issue?

No, there were no galvanizing, life-changing meetings with disabled people or anything like that.

Has your understanding of accessibility changed in unexpected ways during the period you researched and wrote your book?

No, not really, except in the few topics that required a lot of factual research, like colourblindness and the exact populations of disabled people online. I now know quite enough about both topics to stupefy people at dinner parties. The HTML code and the many dozens of illustrations needed some looking up, too. But I mostly wrote the book off the top of my head.

In my experience, both site owners and Web developers complain about the amount of work required to make a site accessible. Given your belief that “lawsuits are the worst way to achieve accessibility, particularly in the U.S., with its poisonous atmosphere,” what could precipitate the shift in thinking so that site owners take pride in the fact that their site is accessible and Web developers regard the ability to build accessible sites as a “cool,” highly-desirable skill?

Managers and clients are gonna have to be educated about what valid HTML is and why it’s mandatory. Content-management systems are gonna have to be updated to produce valid HTML and to fail to mangle existing valid HTML.

Then we will have achieved something vaguely resembling an understanding of standards compliance. Accessibility is one of the standards sites must comply with, and you gain a lot of accessibility automatically just through valid HTML.

Then, some years later, after many more valid-HTML sites are deployed than we could presently point to (nearly every valid-HTML site today is an individual Weblog site and not a commercial venture), these standards-compliant, accessible, well-designed sites will stand as proof of what I’ve been telling everybody for ages—not only can you have all three of those at once, you *must*.

In the meantime, firing all the boy-racer HTML programmers who think they’re tough shit would be a good place to start. They’re jumped-up script kiddies; it was quite telling that my submission of well-written, copy-edited text in a valid HTML document was an absolute first for Slashdot. This is a clientele that does not know what the Shift key does or how to debug two nested ordered lists. (The latter is an actual example from a site I worked on. The concept of closing a paired tag had never occurred to them, so they could not find the error in the sequence <ol><li><ol><li></ol>.)

And of course we’ll also have to fire the boy racers’ clueless Dockers-wearing manager dweebs, who consider themselves old-timers because they got online in 1998 (!) and whose entire experience of the Internet is the commercial Web as rendered through Internet Explorer for Windows. These people cannot even *spell* “W3C” and still think banner ads have not been given a fair shake.

If we could rid the Web-development ecosystem of life-sapping parasites like these—essentially, everyone who is immature and/or has *bad taste*—then we stand a good chance of making valid, standards-compliant Web development the norm rather than the exception.

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Comments

Damn. Go Joe!

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on 17 December 2002 at 11:57 PM

I'm not sure, still dazed -- but I think I have a new hero.

"And of course we'll also have to fire the boy racers' clueless Dockers-wearing manager dweebs, who consider themselves old-timers because they got online in 1998 (!) and whose entire experience of the Internet is the commercial Web as rendered through Internet Explorer for Windows. These people cannot even *spell* "W3C" and still think banner ads have not been given a fair shake."

Yes, yes. I'm fairly sure I have a new hero.

Posted by: Burningbird on 18 December 2002 at 02:34 AM

...with the caveat (sorry Dorothea) that "bad taste* has little to do with accessibility and web specification validation, and more to do with personal interpretation and taste.

However, I agree with all the firing stuff. Then there would be room in companies for mature women who believe in validation and accessibility and who have good taste (aside from a predilection for orange).

Posted by: Burningbird on 18 December 2002 at 02:46 AM

He's been *my* hero for a while, Bb. :)

I've been thinking about this "cool" thing for a bit, and I'm gonna go write out my thoughts...'cause I think there's something more to be said on that topic, things to do with training and mindset....

Thanks for posting this interview, Jonathon - it's great stuff!

Posted by: Elaine on 18 December 2002 at 03:05 AM

Hey! What's wrong with orange?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on 18 December 2002 at 03:22 AM

What's wrong with orange? What's wrong with orange? Here is the url for a site with outstanding content, and yet I get dizzy and squinty and agitated every time I visit. I should send him an email, yes I should. What's wrong with orange you ask.

http://doublereflection.org/ehrlich/

Posted by: Norm Jenson on 18 December 2002 at 04:49 AM

Orange! My own efforts are bland by comparison. This person is Orange! Screams it from the rooftops! Norm, you're right -- it hurts the eyes.

There's restful orange, and then there's orange that picks a stick up and hits you repeatedly about the head.

Posted by: Burningbird on 18 December 2002 at 05:12 AM

while i definitely find the orange to be completely pleasant, i have been considering switching over to something more conservative. it's just that i hate the idea of doing the same plain-jane black on white design that everyone else does. not that it isn't totally classic and tasteful. but i'm not classic or tasteful.

glad you enjoy the content though, norm.

Posted by: Dan Ehrlich on 18 December 2002 at 05:47 AM

Ah oh! Busted!

Posted by: Burningbird on 18 December 2002 at 05:56 AM

I guess this means I won't have to send the email. Busted indeed, and what can I say about the Burningbird site. Tasteful and stimulating both in content and design. Dan, I'll continue to visit even if you don't change your colors although I'd be delighted if you did.

Posted by: Norm Jenson on 18 December 2002 at 08:54 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour