Thursday 19 December 2002

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.



A slight complaint. Your use of the title attribute ("Jonathan Delacour's question" and "Joe Clark's reply") made it really annoying to scroll through the interview using a wheel mouse with Mozilla. The tool tip kept popping up over the text as I was trying to read.

Posted by: PapaScott on 19 December 2002 at 05:31 PM

I did assume that visitors would scroll by clicking in the scroll bar, using the page down key, or with the wheel mouse -- so I checked each method to see how the title attribute behaved. I didn't encounter the problem you describe -- scrolling with the wheel mouse worked fine in Mozilla and Internet Explorer on my PC. I used the title attribute because I was also employing visual indicators (italics, different font) to distinguish between my questions and Joe Clark's replies.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 19 December 2002 at 05:44 PM

I wonder what Joe would say is the most accessible way to display a Question and Answer dialogue? Referencing his Slashdot posting it seems he advocates blockquotes surrounding the question, but not the answer.

As its a dialogue perhaps blockquotes should be around each text container, with class attributes defining the speaker - and conveying some visual indication of the speaker via color differentiation or indentation.

As an alternative to spanning title attributes one could use a leading header to note the speaker as well. A header, blockquote, and class attribute on the blockquote would perhaps be the best way to handle this - and thus avoid the necessity of a title attribute (which doesn't quite seem to apply here).

Posted by: Lou on 19 December 2002 at 11:32 PM

Personally I would mark up a Q&A session with the answers in blockquotes rather than the questions - I imagine Joe used blockquotes around the questions for the Slashdot interview because he was answering them, thus (as with emails) it made sense to quote the questions. I also found the title attributes distracting (I was using Mozilla and scrolling with a mouse wheel).

Fantastic conversation this by the way - I'm really looking forward to the next installment. Any chances of a further explanation of Joe's controversial views on absolute font sizes? (I haven't bought the book yet - it's on my Christmas list).

Posted by: Simon Willison on 20 December 2002 at 01:05 AM

I never really thought about until now, but when I read with a browser I tend have the mouse cursor follow along. Not word for word, like a child just learning to read uses his finger, or even line for line, but at least paragraph for paragraph. I can hover over any links or abbreviations (where I expect a tool tip, or at least would not be surprised or annoyed by one), or scroll the page with the wheel.

Anyway, as I said, the complaint is slight. It was just distracting to have the tool tips constantly covering up what was apparently normal text.

Posted by: PapaScott on 20 December 2002 at 02:27 PM

Great conversation. Thanks for mentioning our CMS as one that produces valid and accessible markup. Correction: liveSTORYBOARD CMS's URL is - the link in the post references a product that is not related to liveSTORYBOARD in any way.

Fully agree with Joe that creating inaccessible sites should be unthinkable, but evangelizing the issue is definitely a challenge today. For example, a lot of our clients are simply unaware of accessibility issues, accessible CMS output is rarely a requirement and proprietary templating mechanisms in CMS's often make it impossible to strive for. I'd like to think it's the vendor's job to educate clients but, unfortunately, a significant number of them prefer to use 'standards' and 'accessibility' as marketing speak while their site's don't even validate. I am quite optimistic though - we work mostly with small companies or independent designers/developers/writers and people jump on the idea as soon as we take the time to explain the issues and show them that such goals can be easily accomplishable.

Posted by: Iva Koberg on 21 December 2002 at 11:04 PM

Iva, please accept my sincere apology. I've corrected the link. (For some reason -- known only to my addled brain -- a Google search on "live storyboard" brought up the other site. If I'd searched on "livestoryboard" or simply tried "" -- as Joe's answer to my question indicated -- there would have been no confusion.)

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 21 December 2002 at 11:16 PM

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

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour