October 19, 2006

The Excellence of Accessibilty Presentations

One of the people I have met this past year and come to know better through traveling to and from Web Directions 2006 and hanging with at d.construct is Derek Featherstone. His presentations on the subject of accessibility are the best I have ever seen. The past year I have not had the opportunity to think, talk about, or develop around the subject of web accessibility (I had thought of this as a good thing, but I will explain that shortly) other than as an extension of semantically well structured information, which most conference I have been speaking at are related to in one form or another.

Derek is one of the first presenters that digs deep into accessibility beyond a set of rules, but also looks at usability for those with accessibility needs as the baseline for building great sites that work for all. He frames his presentations not as accessibility is for "them", but as it is for all of us. This focus is astoundingly refreshing and rare.

Derek digs into how JavaScript and Ajax, if done well (did you read that caveat, "done well"?), can actually improve accessibility. In his presentation Derek walks through how to think about interfaces, both rich and static, and improve upon them for everybody. Much of this is basic usability that is missed by many, but the rich interface elements are something I have not heard before from somebody talking about accessibility.

Lastly, Derek's presentation style is light and easy, which bring many people who are put off my accessibility into listening and learning. It is a great thing to watch people gain interest as he presents about a subject they did not care about. But even better is when they start talking about they now have a good framework to think about and approach accessibility does the power of Derek's presentation style and deep knowledge make a the subject come to life.

Granted I have not been reading much around accessibility for the past year, although I have had some great discussions about it with Matt May and Christian Heilmann at various points this year along the lines of rich interfaces and caring about those with accessibility needs. My lack of interest is not because I do not care about accessibility, but I have been burned out from dealing with the politics of accessibility in the U.S. Federal Government. I enjoyed working with the webmasters on the government side, but outside of that it was really painful. Most people would go out of their way to make unusable, poorly structured, semantically incorrect, let alone unaccessible sites just because they were told to make a site accessible. The long battles, even with those charged with caring and ensuring accessibility, made me very happy not to have to deal with accessibility for quite a while. Since you can get about 90 percent of the way to accessibility with just semantically well structured XHTML mark-up, which is the mark of any decent web developer, I have not considered the subject much beyond that in over a year.

Derek's presentations and our long discussions regarding semantically well structured information as the basis for everything that has improved the web in the past few years, brought me back to enjoying the subject of accessibility. In saying this I am more sure now that those who wrote the U.S. Section 508 regulations and those on the Access Board have failed those who needed real accessibility so they could partake in this freedom of information we embrace.



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