Tag: Accessibility

Automated (and Guided!) Accessibility Audits with axe Pro

It’s important to know there are tools for automated accessibility testing of websites. They are a vital part in helping make sure your website is usable for everyone, which is both a noble goal and damn good for business. Automated tests won’t catch every potential accessibility issue, but they help a great deal, and in my experience, help establish a culture of caring about accessibility. The more seriously you take these tests and actually fix the problems, the more likely it is you’re doing a good job of accessibility overall.

There is one testing tool that stands above the rest, axe (it’s even what Google’s Lighthouse uses), and now it’s gotten a whole lot better with axe Pro.

The axe extention is still the powerhouse, where robust accessibility reports are a click away in DevTools:

axe in Chrome DevTools

But there’s more!

Guided Question-Answer Accessibility Walkthroughs

Not to bury the lede, this is probably the best new feature of axe Pro. The tool is so friendly, it gives accessibility testing powers to just about anybody:

“Axe Pro essentially lets every developer function as an in-house accessibility expert,” says Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems.

Run the tests, and it just asks you stuff in plain English.

Screenshot of axe asking me if the page title is correct on this page
Anybody can answer questions from a guided tour like this. It’s extremely helpful to be hand-held through thinking about these important aspects of your site.

For example, here’s a test walkthrough of it helping me think about header and header levels:

Step 1: start test
Step 2: Identify headers that shouldn't be.
Step 3: Identify elements that should be headers but aren't.

First, you identify the problems, then you can save the information so you can work on the fixes as you can.

Your tests can be saved as online reports

Working in DevTools is nice and the perfect place to be digging into the accessibility issues on your site. But that session in DevTools is short-lived! It’s just one developer working on one computer at one point in time. With the new axe Pro web dashboard, you can save your tests online. This is useful for a variety of reasons:

  • You can save your testing so far and come back to it later to keep going.
  • You can clear out tests and re-do them, to track your progress moving forward.
  • You can have multiple tests on the dashboard to help you test multiple pages and projects.
  • Your team has a home to manage these tests all together.

You can export the data

If you’d prefer to get the results out of axe and somewhere else, you can now export the data as JSON or CSV. Perhaps you want to track the results over time to visualize improvements or port the information to some other tool. The data is yours.

export dialog box for axe test results

I found helpful prompts immediately.

I’d like to think I care about accessibility and work accessibily as I go, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find mistakes find their way into your code bases over time. Just like we might have automated tools to watch our performance metrics over time, we can and should be regularly testing accessibility, especially when automation helpfulness like axe Pro provides.

Just in playing with axe Pro for a few hours, I’ve…

  • Found many images that had missing and incorrect alt text on them.
  • Found a few elements that were using header tags that really shouldn’t have been.
  • Fixed some color contrast on some elements that were just barely not AA and light tweaks got them there.

That second one I found very satisfying as the guided tour helped me find them. That’s something an entirely automated tool won’t really help find, it requires you looking at things and making judgment calls.

I’m very optimistic this is going to help lots of folks unearth accessibility issues they wouldn’t have caught otherwise.

It’s free for a limited time

It’s kind of a big deal:

Developers can typically identify about half of all critical accessibility blockers through axe.

You might as well try it out!

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Improving Video Accessibility with WebVTT

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
– Tim Berners-Lee

Accessibility is an important element of web development, and with the ever-growing prevalence of video content, the necessity for captioned content is growing as well. WebVTT is a technology that solves helps with captioned content as a subtitle format that integrates easily with already-existing web APIs.

That’s what we’re going to look at here in this article. Sure, WebVTT is captioning at its most basic, but there are ways to implement it to make videos (and the captioned content itself) more accessible for users.

See the Pen
VJJMZz
by Geoff Graham (@geoffgraham)
on CodePen.

Hi, meet the WebVTT format

First and foremost: WebVTT is a type of file that contains the text “WebVTT” and lines of captions with timestamps. Here’s an example:

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 - [Birds chirping] - It's a beautiful day!  00:00:04.000 --> 00:00:07.000 - [Creek trickling] - It is indeed!  00:00:08.000 --> 00:00:10.000 - Hello there!

A little weird, but makes pretty good sense, right? As you can see, the first line is “WEBVTT” and it is followed by a time range (in this case, 0 to 3 seconds) on Line 3. The time range is required. Otherwise, the WEBVTT file will not work at all and it won’t even display or log errors to let you know. Finally, each line below a time range represents captions contained in the range.

Note that you can have multiple captions in a single time range. Hyphens may be used to indicate the start of a line, though it’s not required and more stylistic than anything else.

The time range can be one of two formats: hh:mm:ss.tt or mm:ss.tt. Each part follows certain rules:

  • Hours (hh): Minimum of two digits
  • Minutes (mm): Between 00 and 59, inclusive
  • Seconds (ss): Between 00 and 59, inclusive
  • Milliseconds (tt): Between 000 and 999, inclusive

This may seem rather daunting at first. You’re probably wondering how anyone can be expected to type and tweak this all by hand. Luckily, there are tools to make this easier. For example, YouTube can automatically caption videos for you with speech recognition in addition to allowing you to download the caption as a VTT file as well! But that’s not it. WebVTT can also be used with YouTube as well by uploading your VTT file to your YouTube video.

Once we have this file created, we can then embed it into an HTML5 video element.

<!DOCTYPE HTML> <html>   <body>     <video controls autoplay>       <source src="your_video.mp4" type="video/mp4"/>       <track default kind="captions" srclang="en" label="English" src="your_caption_file.vtt"/>     </video>   </body> </html>

The <track> tag is sort of like a script that “plays” along with the video. We can use multiple tracks in the same video element. The default attribute indicates that a the track will be enabled automatically.

Let’s run down all the <track> attributes while we’re at it:

  • srclang indicates what language the track is in.
  • kind represents the type of track it is and there are five kinds:
    • subtitles are usually translations and descriptions of different parts of a video.
    • descriptions help unsighted users understand what is happening in a video.
    • captions provide un-hearing users an alternative to audio.
    • metadata is a track that is used by scripts and cannot be seen by users.
    • chapters assist in navigating video content.
  • label is a title for the text track that appears in the caption track
  • src is the source file for the track. It cannot come from a cross-origin source unless crossorigin is specified.

While WebVTT is designed specifically for video, you can still use it with audio by placing an audio file within a <video> element.

Digging into the structure of a WebVTT file

MDN has great documentation and outlines the body structure of a WebVTT file, which consists of up to six components. Here’s how MDN breaks it down:

  • An optional byte order mark (BOM)
  • The string “WEBVTT
  • An optional text header to the right of WEBVTT.
    • There must be at least one space after WEBVTT.
    • You could use this to add a description to the file.
    • You may use anything in the text header except newlines or the string “-->“.
  • A blank line, which is equivalent to two consecutive newlines.
  • Zero or more cues or comments.
  • Zero or more blank lines.

Note: a BOM is a unicode character that indicates the unicode encoding of the text file.

Bold, italic, and underline — oh my!

We can absolutely use some inline HTML formatting in WebVTT files! These are the ones that everyone is familiar with: <b>, <i>, and <u>. You use them exactly as you would in HTML.

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 align:start This is bold text  00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 align:middle This is italic text  00:00:06.000 --> 00:00:09.000 vertical:rl align:middle This is <u>underlined  text</u>

Cue settings

Cue settings are optional strings of text used to control the position of a caption. It’s sort of like positioning elements in CSS, like being able to place captions on the video.

For example, we could place captions to the right of a cue timing, control whether a caption is displayed horizontally or vertically, and define both the alignment and vertical position of the caption.

Here are the settings that are available to us.

Setting 1: Line

line controls the positioning of the caption on the y-axis. If vertical is specified (which we’ll look at next), then line will instead indicate where the caption will be displayed on the x-axis.

When specifying the line value, integers and percentages are perfectly acceptable units. In the case of using an integer, the distance per line will be equal to the height (from a horizontal perspective) of the first line. So, for example, let’s say the height of the first line of the caption is equal to 50px, the line value specified is 2, and the caption’s direction is horizontal. That means the caption will be positioned 100px (50px times 2) down from the top, up to a maximum equal to coordinates of the boundaries of the video. If we use a negative integer, it will move upward from the bottom as the value decreases (or, in the case of vertical:lr being specified, we will move from right-to-left and vice-versa). Be careful here, as it’s possible to position the captions off-screen in addition to the positioning being inconsistent across browsers. With great power comes great responsibility!

In the case of a percentage, the value must be between 0-100%, inclusive (sorry, no 200% mega values here). Higher values will move the caption from top-to-bottom, unless vertical:lr or vertical:rl is specified, in which case the caption will move along the x-axis accordingly.

As the value increases, the caption will appear further down the video boundaries. As the value decreases (including into the negatives), the caption will appear further up.

Tough picture this without examples, right? Here’s how this translates into code:

00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 line:50% This caption should be positioned horizontally in the approximate center of the screen.
00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 vertical:lr line:50% This caption should be positioned vertically in the approximate center of the screen.
00:00:06.000 --> 00:00:09.000 vertical:rl line:-1 This caption should be positioned vertically along the left side of the video.
00:00:09.000 --> 00:00:12.000 line:0 The caption should be positioned horizontally at the top of the screen.

Setting 2: Vertical

vertical indicates the caption will be displayed vertically and move in the direction specified by the line setting. Some languages are not displayed left-to-right and instead need a top-to-bottom display.

  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 vertical:rl This caption should be vertical.
00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 vertical:lr This caption should be vertical.

Setting 3: Position

position specifies where the caption will be displayed along the x-axis. If vertical is specified, the position will instead specify where the caption will be displayed on the y-axis. It must be an integer value between 0% and 100%, inclusive.

00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 vertical:rl position:100% This caption will be vertical and toward the bottom.  00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 vertical:rl position:0% This caption will be vertical and toward the top.

At this point, you may notice that line and position are similar to the CSS flexbox properties for align-items and justify-content, and that vertical behaves a lot like flex-direction. A trick for remembering WebVTT directions is that line specifies a position perpendicular to the flow of the text, whereas position specifies the position parallel to the flow of the text. That’s why line suddenly moves along the horizontal axis, and position moves along the vertical axis if we specify vertical.

Setting 4: Size

size specifies the width of the caption. If vertical is specified, then it will set the height of the caption instead. Like other settings, it must be an integer between 0% and 100%, inclusive.

00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 vertical:rl size:50% This caption will fill half the screen vertically.
00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 position:0% This caption will fill the entire screen horizontally.

Setting 5: Align

align specifies where the text will appear horizontally. If vertical is specified, then it will control the vertical alignment instead.

The values we’ve got are: start, middle, end, left and right. Without vertical specified, the alignments are exactly what they sound like. If vertical is specified, they effectively become top, middle (vertically), and bottom. Using start and end as opposed to left and right, respectively, is a more flexible way of allowing the alignment to be based on the unicode-bidi CSS property’s plaintext value.

Note that align is not unaffected by vertical:lr or vertical:rl.

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 align:start This caption will be on the left side of the screen.  00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 align:middle This caption will be horizontally in the middle of the screen.  00:00:06.000 --> 00:00:09.000 vertical:rl align:middle This caption will be vertically in the middle of the screen.  00:00:09.000 --> 00:00:12.000 vertical:rl align:end This caption will be vertically at the bottom right of the screen regardless of vertical:lr or vertical:rl orientation.  00:00:12.000 --> 00:00:15.000 vertical:lr align:end This caption will be vertically at the bottom of the screen, regardless of the vertical:lr or vertical:rl orientation.  00:00:12.000 --> 00:00:15.000 align:left This caption will appear on the left side of the screen.  00:00:12.000 --> 00:00:15.000 align:right This caption will appear on the right side of the screen.

WebVTT Comments

WebVTT comments are strings of text that are only visible when reading the source text of the file, the same way we think of comments in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and any other language. Comments may contain a new line, but not a blank line (which is essentially two new lines).

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 - [Birds chirping] - It's a beautiful day!  NOTE This is a comment. It will not be visible to anyone viewing the caption.  00:00:04.000 --> 00:00:07.000 - [Creek trickling] - It is indeed!  00:00:08.000 --> 00:00:10.000 - Hello there!

When the caption file is parsed and rendered, the highlighted line above will be completely hidden from users. Comments can be multi-line as well.

There are three very important characters/strings to take note of that may not be used in comments: <, &, and -->. As an alternative, you can use escaped characters instead.

Not Allowed Alternative
NOTE PB&J NOTE PB&amp;J
NOTE 5 < 7 NOTE 5 &lt; 7
NOTE puppy --> dog NOTE puppy --&gt; do

A few other interesting WebVTT features

We’re going to take a quick look at some really neat ways we can customize and control captions, but that are lacking consistent browser support, at least at the time of this writing.

Yes, we can style captions!

WebVTT captions can, in fact, be styled. For example, to style the background of a caption to be red, set the background property on the ::cue pseudo-element:

video::cue {   background: red; }

Remember how we can use some inline HTML formatting in the WebVTT file? Well, we can select those as well. For example, to select and italic (<i>) element:

video::cue(i) {   color: yellow; }

Turns out WebVTT files support a style block, a lot like the way HTML files do:

WEBVTT  STYLE ::cue {   color: blue;   font-family: "Source Sans Pro", sans-serif; }

Elements can also be accessed via their cue identifiers. Note that cue identifiers use the same escaping mechanism as HTML.

WEBVTT  STYLE ::cue(#middle cue identifier) {   text-decoration: underline; } ::cue(#cue identifier ) {   font-weight: bold;   color: red; }  first cue identifier 00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:02.000 Hello, world!  middle cue identifier 00:00:02.000 --> 00:00:04.000 This cue identifier will have an underline!  cue identifier 3 00:00:04.000 --> 00:00:06.000 This one won't be affected, just like the first one!

Different types of tags

Many tags can be used to format captions. There is a caveat. These tags cannot be used in a <track> element where kind attribute is chapters. Here are some formatting tags you can use.

The class tag

We can define classes in the WebVTT markup using a class tag that can be selected with CSS. Let’s say we have a class, .yellowish that makes text yellow. We can use the tag <c.yellowish> in a caption. We can control lots of styling this way, like the font, the font color, and background color.

/* Our CSS file */ .yellowish {   color: yellow; } .redcolor {   color: red; }
WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 <c.yellowish>This text should be yellow.</c> This text will be the default color.  00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 <c.redcolor>This text should be red.</c> This text will be the default color.

The timestamp tag

If you want to make captions appear at specific times, then you will want to use timestamp tags. They’re like fine-tuning captions to exact moments in time. The tag’s time must be within the given time range of the caption, and each timestamp tag must be later than the previous.

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:07.000 This <00:00:01.000>text <00:00:02.000>will <00:00:03.000>appear <00:00:04.000>over <00:00:05.000>6 <00:00:06.000>seconds.

The voice tag

Voice tags are neat in that they help identify who is speaking.

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:03.000 <v Alice>How was your day, Bob?  00:00:03.000 --> 00:00:06.000 <v Bob>Great, yours?

The ruby tag

The ruby tag is a way to display small, annotative characters above the caption.

WEBVTT  00:00:00.000 --> 00:00:05.000 <ruby>This caption will have text above it<rt>This text will appear above the caption.

Conclusion

And that about wraps it up for WebVTT! It’s an extremely useful technology and presents an opportunity to improve your site’s accessibility a great deal, particularly if you are working with video. Try some of your own captions out yourself to get a better feel for it!

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Grid, content re-ordering and accessibility

Take this:

<ol>   <li>Get hungry</li>   <li>Order pizza</li>   <li>Eat pizza</li> </ol>

That HTML ends up in the DOM that way (and thus how it is is exposed to assistive technology), and by default, those list items are also visually shown in that order. In most layout situations, the visual order will match that DOM order. Do nothing, and the list items will flow in the block direction of the document. Apply flexbox, and it will flow in the inline direction of the document.

But flexbox and grid also allow you to muck it up. Now take this:

ol {    display: flex;   flex-direction: row-reverse; }

In this case, the DOM order still makes sense, but the visual order is all wrong. It’s not just row-reverse. There are a number of flexbox and grid properties that can get involved and confuse things: the order property, flowing items into columns instead of rows, and positioning items specifically in unusual orders, among others. Even absolute positioning could cause the same trouble.

Manuel Matuzovic says:

If the visual order and the DOM order don’t match, it can irritate and confuse users up to a point where the experience is so bad that the site is unusable.

Rachel Andrew highlights this issue (including things we’ve published) as a big issue, and hopes we can get tools at the CSS level to help.

I think this is something we sorely need to address at a CSS level. We need to provide a way to allow the tab and reading order to follow the visual order. Source order is a good default, if you are taking advantage of normal flow, a lot of the time following the source is exactly what you want. However not always, not at every breakpoint. If we don’t give people a solution for this, we will end up with a mess. We’ve given people these great tools, and now I feel as if I’m having to tell people not to use them.

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Do you need an ICON ONLY button without screwing up the accessibility?

The first consideration is: do you really? If you can, having text next to your icons is proven over and over again to be the most accessible and clearest UX (see Apple’s latest blunder). But if you need to (and I get it, sometimes you need to), Sara Soueidan and Scott O’Hara have a pair of articles that nicely lay out all the options and present actual research on this topic.

If you just want to be told what to do, I’d go for the just use some text in the button approach:

<button aria-expanded="false" id="menu-trigger">    <svg viewBox="0 0 32 32" width="32px" height="32px"       aria-hidden="true" focusable="false">      <!-- svg content -->     </svg>     Menu </button>

Sara says There is no One Way to Rule Them All, but it does seem like you really need to use actual text inside that button and either hide it or override it somehow. SVG alone has no rock solid way to provide an accessible name to a button or link.

Funny how long this has been a tricky pattern to get right.

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Weekly Platform News: Favicon Guidelines, Accessibility Testing, Web Almanac

Šime posts regular content for web developers on webplatform.news.

Google posts guidelines for defining favicons

Jamie Leach: Google Search now displays favicons in search results on mobile. Your favicon should be a multiple of 48×48 (Google will re-scale it to 16×16 for use in search results). If a website doesn’t have a favicon or Google deems the favicon inappropriate, a generic globe icon will be displayed instead.

Your favicon should be a visual representation of your website’s brand, in order to help users quickly identify your site when they scan through search results.

Top websites are surprisingly inconsistent in the way they declare icons (via <link> elements in the page’s head). Twitter and Pinterest, two relatively modern progressive web apps, provide icons in two sizes.

<!-- example --> <link rel="icon" href="/icon-32x32.png"> <link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="/icon-192x192.png">

The Paciello Group releases ARC Toolkit

The Paciello Group: ARC Toolkit, our professional-level accessibility testing tool, is now available as a Chrome DevTools extension. This tool detects issues related to the WCAG 2.1 guidelines. You can run the test on the entire page or just the node selected in the DevTools Elements panel.

Remember, automated accessibility tools are only able to find some accessibility issues, and manual testing is necessary to ensure full accessibility. Lighthouse (via the Audits panel) suggests manual checks after performing an accessibility audit.

Other news

  • Jeff Jaffe: W3C and WHATWG have reached an agreement to collaborate on the development of HTML. “W3C shall encourage the community … to contribute directly to the WHATWG HTML and DOM repositories; raising issues, proposing solutions, commenting on proposed solutions, and indicating support or otherwise for proposals.”
  • Paul Calvano: “There is a significant gap in the first- vs. third-party resource age of CSS and web fonts. 95% of first-party fonts are older than one week compared to 50% of third-party fonts … This makes a strong case for self-hosting web fonts!”
  • Rachel Andrew: The CSS subgrid value is a relatively straightforward addition to grid layout. For example, if you have nested grids, and you apply grid-template-rows: subgrid to the child grid, then this grid will use the row tracks of the parent grid instead of creating its own row tracks. That’s all there is to it. (This feature is currently only supported in Firefox Nightly.)
  • GitHub Blog: GitHub can now generate automated security fixes for your dependencies with known security vulnerabilities. On GitHub’s website, check your repository’s Security tab for security alerts. If you open an alert and press the “Create automated security fix” button, GitHub will create an automated pull request that fixes the security vulnerability.
  • Rick Viscomi: HTTP Archive plans to release the first annual Web Almanac in November, a report of the state of the web with interesting insights written by different experts. About 50 volunteers from the web community are currently working on it, and they are looking for more contributors.

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Color contrast accessibility tools

Accessibility is all the rage these days, specifically when it comes to color contrast. I’ve stumbled upon a couple of tools this week that I think are pretty nifty for helping make sure that all of the text on our websites is legible regardless of what background color they might have.

First up is the Accessible Color Generator which happens to be a wonderful tool for picking alternative colors. Let’s say you’re working on a brand with color X. You can generate a host of other complimentary colors like this:

Next up is Contrast, a rather great MacOS app that sits in the menu bar at all times and helps identify accessible color pairings based on WCAG Guidelines. This one is particularly useful if you happen to be a designer:

This reminds me of a wonderful post about how the Lyft design team re-approached the way they use color in their app. Kevyn Arnott explains:

Color, at least on the surface, appears almost naively simple, yet as it scales across larger products it becomes unbelievably complex. You have thousands of people building products all at once, and those products are all heavily reliant on color. This puts a lot of pressure on the color system to ensure that all the products are being created consistently, but very hard to implement since it’s all too easy to apply colors on a one-off basis.

The team then went ahead and built ColorBox.io which lets you systematically build out a ton of colors for your design systems work. It’s pretty nifty!

Plus the folks over at GOV.UK made their own color accessibility tool called Contrast Checker which (as you have guessed by the name) helps check the contrast between the background of an element and the page itself:

And, of course, there’s the trusty WebAIM contrast checker, which is a go-to for many developers out there.

So far, we’ve looked at tools that check contrast. But there is a class of tooling that can automate accessible contrasts during development. Josh Bader wrote up an approach that enforces high contrast by pairing CSS custom properties with the calc() function. Facundo Corradini did something similar that switches font color based on the background color behind it.

Oh! And we may have something to look forward to with the color-adjust property. It is proposed in the CSS Color Module Level 4 specification and could give browsers more control to adjust color values that are declared in the stylesheet. It’s not really geared towards color contrast, but there’s something interesting about handing off the responsibility of rendering color values to the browser based on certain conditions.

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Naming things to improve accessibility

I like the this wrap-up statement from Hidde de Vries:

In modern browsers, our markup becomes an accessibility tree that ultimately informs what our interface looks like to assistive technologies. It doesn’t matter as much whether you’ve written this markup:

  • in a .html file
  • in Twig, Handlebars or Nunjucks
  • as the <template> in a Vue Single File Component
  • exported in the JSX of your React component
  • outputted by a weird legacy CMS

It is which markup that determines if your site is pleasurable to experience for AT users. In short: it’s the markup that matters

As a front-end developer, you’ll find yourself writing markup in lots of different places with lots of different technologies. I think it behooves you think of how best to write it regardless of where and how.

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Accessibility Events

“There isn’t some way to know when—…?”

There is always a pause here. The client knows what they’re asking, and I know what they’re asking, but putting it into words—saying it out loud—turns unexpectedly difficult.

In the moments before the asking, it was a purely technical question—no different from “can we do this when a user is on their phone.” But there’s always a pause, because this question doesn’t come easy; not like all the other questions about browsers and connection speeds did. A phrase like “in an assisted browsing context” doesn’t spring to mind as readily as “on a phone,” “in Internet Explorer,” or “on a slow connection.” The former, well, that’s something I would say—a phrase squarely in the realm of accessibility consultants. The latter the client can relate to. They have a phone, they’ve used other browsers, they’ve been stuck with slow internet connections.

“There isn’t some way to know when—… a user is… using something like a screen reader…?”

An easy question that begets a complicated answer is standard fare for almost any exchange with a web developer. This answer has, for a long time, been a refreshing deviation from that norm: “no, we can’t.”

The matter is, I’ll offer, technically impossible; computers, you see, can’t talk to each other that way. Often, there’s a palpable relief here: “no” to the technical part; “no” to the the computers part. That is, of course, all they had meant to ask. I truly believe that.

Even if we could, I’ll explain, we wouldn’t really want to. Forking our codebase that way would put more burden on us maintainers, not less. There’s an easy parallel to the “when they’re on a phone” conversation, here; one we’ve surely had already. We can never know a user’s browsing context for certain, and making assumptions will only get us and our users into trouble. Whenever a feature, component, or new design treatment was added or changed, we’d be left having all the same conversations around how to translate it over to the “accessible” experience. If those features aren’t essential in the first place, well, are they worth having at all? If those features are essential—well, we’ll still need to find a way to make them work in both contexts.

It could seem like an enticing option for our users, at first glance: an enhanced, fully-featured website, on the one hand, a fully accessible alternative experience on the other. That unravels with even the slightest examination, though: if the fully-featured website isn’t accessible, the accessible website won’t be fully featured. By choosing to have the “accessible experience” deviate from the “real website,” we end up drawing a sharper line between those two definitions, and we nudge the “accessible experience” closer to an afterthought—limited and frustratingly out-of-sync with the “real” website, like so many dedicated mobile sites quickly became.

There’s never any disagreement, here. Again: this is all relatable. We’ve all found ourselves inescapably opted into using the “mobile” version of a website at some point. We’ve been here before as users; we’ve made these mistakes before as developers. We know better now.

But this isn’t a strictly technical question. This isn’t as simple as browser features and screen sizes—a question of one privileged browsing context or another. Technical questions come easy. Partway through the asking—in the hesitation, in the pause, in the word stumbled over—what was meant to be a mundane development question became something much more fraught. Because there was a word that fit.

“Is there a way we can know when a user has a disability?”

The easy “no” felt empowering; a cop-out. “It doesn’t matter; it can’t be done” in response to a deeply fraught question was an unexpected balm for both the asked and the answered. There was, again, that palpable relief—”no” to the technical part; “no” to the the computers part. That was, of course, all they had meant to ask.

We no longer have that easy answer. In iOS 12.2 and MacOS 10.14.4, a toggle switch has appeared in Apple’s VoiceOver preferences, innocuously labeled “accessibility events.” It was rolled out to no fanfare—short of a brief mention in Apple’s iPhone User Guide—and we’re still not sure how it’s meant to be used. The most generous interpretation of the intention behind this feature is that it was developed with the same intention as a “UA string”-style identifier for users browsing via VoiceOver.

We do know this much: when this setting is enabled—and it is, by default—your browser will identify you as using VoiceOver to help you browse the web. If you’re using Apple’s VoiceOver, both your phone and your computer will broadcast your assumed disability to the entire internet, unless and until you specifically tell it to stop.

If you’re not furious at this change, you should be—not just for what it means for users, but what it foists upon you. Apple has burdened you with the knowledge that, now, yes, you can know whether a user has a disability. We can use this information to serve up a limited alternative version of a website, into which we can very easily opt people of a protected class. And once we choose to start listening for “accessibility events,” well, we can capture that information, as anything else broadcast to the web. A user’s disability can and will be reduced to a single data point—a cold, impersonal true, inexorably bound to their name, stored in a database, perhaps destined to be sold, leaked, passed along to insurance providers, reduced to a targeted marketing opportunity. All under the auspice of inclusivity.

At some point, the developers responsible for the “accessibility events” feature were, I’m certain, asked whether such a feature were possible. Their answer was “yes.” I don’t doubt that they meant well. I’m just as certain that, in the moment, it felt like the right answer; a technical solution to a technical problem, and a simple matter of browsing context.

Someday—not far in the future, I trust—I’ll be asked a similar question. It will be asked hesitantly, haltingly. The pauses will ring all too familiar. I will no longer have the easy, familiar comfort of technical impossibility—no easy “no” to insulate me from the uncomfortable conversations I should have been having with clients all along. Now, there’s no technical reason that I can’t know whether a user is using “something like a screen reader.” I—my clients, their databases, their organizations, their parent companies, their partners, their VC funders, their advertisers, and so on unto infinity—can absolutely know when a user is disabled.

But I won’t play a part in helping to propagate the mistake Apple’s developers made. I’ll let my answer hang heavy and uncomfortable in the air: no. Not because we can’t—we can. Not because we shouldn’t, though, no, we still shouldn’t. No—now, I will allow the word to become as coarse as I had always wanted it to be, because I no longer have the cold comfort of “well, technically” to hide behind.

No.

 

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Some Notes About Accessibility

Earlier this month Eric Bailey wrote about the current state of accessibility on the web and why it felt like fighting an uphill battle:

As someone with a good deal of interest in the digital accessibility space, I follow WebAIM’s work closely. Their survey results are priceless insights into how disabled people actually use the web, so when the organization speaks with authority on a subject, I listen.

WebAIM’s accessibility analysis of the top 1,000,000 homepages was released to the public on February 27, 2019. I’ve had a few days to process it, and frankly, it’s left me feeling pretty depressed. In a sea of already demoralizing findings, probably the most notable one is that pages containing ARIA—a specialized language intended to aid accessibility—are actually more likely to have accessibility issues.

Following up from that post, Ethan Marcotte jotted down his thoughts on the matter and about who has the responsibility to fix these issues in the long run:

Organizations like WebAIM have, alongside countless other non-profits and accessibility advocates, been showing us how we could make the web live up to its promise as a truly universal medium, one that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, regardless of ability or need. And we failed.

I say we quite deliberately. This is on us: on you, and on me. And, look, I realize it may sting to read that. Hell, my work is constantly done under deadline, the way I work seems to change every year month, and it can feel hard to find the time to learn more about accessibility. And maybe you feel the same way. But the fact remains that we’ve created a web that’s actively excluding people, and at a vast, terrible scale. We need to meditate on that.

I suppose the lesson I’m taking from this is, well, we need to much, much more than meditating. I agree with Marcy Sutton: accessibility is a civil right, full stop. Improving the state of accessibility on the web is work we have to support. The alternative isn’t an option. Leaving the web in its current state isn’t fair. It isn’t just.

I entirely agree with Ethan here – we all have a responsibility to make the web a better place for everyone and especially when it comes to accessibility where the bar is so very low for us now. This isn’t to say that I know best, because there’s been plenty of times when I’ve dropped the ball when I’m designing something for the web.

What can we do to tackle the widespread issue surrounding web accessibility?

Well, as Eric mentions in his post, it’s first and foremost a problem of education and he points to Firefox and their great accessibility inspector as a tool to help us see and understand accessibility principles in action:

An image of the Firefox Accessibility tool inspecting the CSS-Tricks website

Marco Zehe is on the Firefox accessibility team wrote and about what the inspector is and how to use it:

This inspector is not meant as an evaluation tool. It is an inspection tool. So it will not give you hints about low contrast ratios, or other things that would tell you whether your site is WCAG compliant. It helps you inspect your code, helps you understand how your web site is translated into objects for assistive technologies.

Chris also wrote up some of his thoughts a short while ago, including other accessibility testing tools and checklists that can help us get started making more accessible experiences. The important thing to note here is that these tools need to be embedded within our process for web design if they’re going to solve these issues.

We can’t simply blame our tools.

I know the current state of web accessbility is pretty bad and that there’s an enormous amount of work to do for us all, but to be honest, I can’t help but feel a little optimistic. For the first time in my career, I’ve had designers and engineers alike approach me excitedly about accessibility. Each year, there are tons of workshops, articles, meetups, and talks (and I particularly like this talk by Laura Carvajal) on the matter meaning there’s a growing source of referential content that can teach us to be better.

And I can’t help but think that all of these conversations are a good sign – but now it’s up to us to do the work.

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See No Evil: Hidden Content and Accessibility

There is no one true way to hide something on the web. Nor should there be, because hiding is too vague. Are you hiding visually or temporarily (like a user menu), but the content should still be accessible? Are you hiding it from assistive tech on purpose? Are you showing it to assistive tech only? Are you hiding it at certain screen sizes or other scenarios? Or are you just plain hiding it from everyone all the time?

Paul Hebert digs into these scenarios. We’ve done a video on this subject as well.

Feels like many CSS properties play some role in hiding or revealing content: display, position, overflow, opacity, visibility, clip-path

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