Conversation with Joe Clark: 03
Betsie is the filter program used by the BBC to create automatic text-only versions of some of its websites (e.g. the BBC News site and the Betsie version). You make it quite clear in the book that you believe text-only versions of websites should be discouraged (the biggest myth is that “the most accessible sites are text-only”). Therefore I’m wondering what you think of an automated tool like Betsie (produced by the BBC in association with the Royal National Institute for the Blind).
I’m sure it was created with the best of intentions. Radio-Canada appears to have emulated the BBC in this respect. It seems like the kind of small programming assignment a well-meaning person would put together: The programmer takes the issue seriously and makes a concerted effort to do something about it. Unfortunately, what the programmer actually does is questionably useful, and after it’s all finished, the BBC pretty much figures it’s handled the problem and can get back to its real work. (In fairness, BBC accessibility tends to be OK.)
I wish people would put more effort into providing reconfigurable interfaces, with, say, navbars placed at the bottom of the page to get them out of the way. Rearranging information for convenience is infinitely better than eliminating information, which is what creating a text-only page does. It essentially says “We’re going to destroy our content to save it for you, the disabled viewer.”
In a number of places throughout the book you take the WCAG and WAI to task for their unrealistic, unimaginative, pedantic, design-hostile (my words) attitudes. Have you had much (any?) contact with other “accessibility professionals”?
Mm, sort of. I have some friends in town.
Are you aware of how they regard your book?
Oh, probably the same way they regard me, and my colleagues have shown no hesitation whatsoever in posting and talking to the press to tell the world what they really think of me, which does not actually *matter*, since they don’t have to like me to work with me.
Have you been invited by the WAI people to speak at any of their meetings or functions?
No. In fact, I cannot even remember being specifically asked to write or improve the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and when I dare to provide expert criticism anyway the reaction is comparable to handing Superman a chunk of Kryptonite. But again, I’m not going to put words in their mouths when they are quite free to advance their own opinions.
Are the companies who develop content management systems—apart from blogging tools—way behind in thinking about accessibility
The larger CMSs are a kind of protection racket: You buy our system for six figures, and then you keep paying us every year to maintain your license, and also you’ll have to hire a person trained in our ways to keep your system up and running. Fail to do any of that and your entire site crashes. It’s extortion, really, and high-end CMSs are dogs in so many ways—they can’t produce valid code, their URLs are appalling, and they are difficult to use. In essence, big CMSs are mainframe systems, with the same need for constant nursing and non-stop tending by codependent system administrators as those old mainframes.
So of course you can’t expect these products to work well with accessible sites. It’s not impossible, but it’s another complication.
Meanwhile, it’s the freebie and small-time CMSs, like Movable Type and LiveStoryboard and Macromedia Contribute, that produce at least passable valid code and enable accessibility features. If nothing else, you can add features to a page and the CMS won’t destroy them when untrained users add content.
If you were Chief of Software Engineering for the Entire Universe, what kinds of changes would you like to see implemented in both Web authoring tools and content management systems?
It’s simple and sweeping: You couldn’t put out an inaccessible product. Now, the exact degree of accessibility and the disability groups covered would perhaps be up to discussion (as ever, learning-disabled people are difficult to accommodate), but the idea of releasing an inaccessible product should be unthinkable the way releasing a product that misspells the company name is unthinkable.