Blue Ribbon Campaign

Reflections of a ModemJunkie

ACCESS, Access, access

After I finished last month's column, in which I talked about my efforts to attain a design award for The Gropper Windows pages, I spotted a gold ribbon on a page proclaiming the site to be "speech friendly." The concept intrigued me and I learned of efforts on behalf of a number of people, including, Cathy Anne Murtha, to encourage the creation of sites which are compatible with speech synthesizers, enabling those with vision difficulties to hear the content of web sites.

Having just received the WDG Award for the Gropper pages, I should have been satisfied, but my curiosity got the better of me and I sent a note to Cathy, the sponsor of the award, asking whether a site dedicated to graphic images could be made speech friendly. I received an excited and gracious note in response indicating that, indeed, such a site could be speech friendly. She authorized use of the ribbon on the page without modification, but also suggested that I provide greater detail in my descriptions of the individual windows, a project I have yet to undertake (volunteers accepted).

Speech Friendly Site I quickly added the new ribbon to the "miscellany" section of the Gropper pages, together with other kudos it has received.

The design simplicity rewarded by the Web Design Group had resulted in a "Speech friendly" site. On the other hand, my home page, Notes from a ModemJunkie, apparently did not qualify. What was the difference? I wondered.

Eventually, I discovered that while it is a great start, design correctness (validated HTML) and simplicity are not enough to be truly speech friendly, although they go a long way. Other considerations are also relevant. For example, on the ModemJunkie page I frequently include more than one link within a sentence or a line, which confuses speech synthesizers. There may have been other design elements which were also confusing. Indeed, when I added the Gold Ribbon the Gropper pages, I included a link to the Speech Friendly Page in the same sentence
as a link to the Web Design Group and to a Religious index which had featured the site. In the process of boasting about the award, I had violated its principles. (Notice: I put a line break in the penultimate sentence to avoid having two links in the same line. I almost did the same thing again.)

Cathy encouraged me through the learning process. She told me of her excitement that her Web Site and award were to be featured on a major television network news magazine program focusing on seeing eye dogs for the blind. She had offered to validate the program's web page, which was to describe that week's program, so that she could award it the ribbon and gain some recognition for the speech friendly concept. I eagerly tuned in to watch the show, which was fascinating, but made no reference to her award.

I can only guess at what internal jealousies had caused the network's web designers to refuse to submit their page for consideration, but a quick look at the page showed why. The page, although looking amazingly clean, used HTML tricks to accomplish its looks and was anything but speech friendly. Instead, as a sop to the blind, it used "Real Audio" techniques to make it possible for a blind surfer to hear the contents. But I have no idea how a blind person would be able to navigate such a page to find the Real Audio link. The network was very proud of itself and an opportunity was lost.

Still, what I was learning fascinated me. I wondered if there were other individuals with disabilities whose special needs could be met in web page design. I decided that this month's column would focus on those needs. I sought out newsgroups related to disabilities and posted inquiries in all of them. In a three week period I received only four responses, and one of them warned me that I would be disappointed -- that there were many web pages dedicated to disabilities, but that many were rapidly orphaned by their creators. That seems to have been the case. And perhaps I am guilty as well.

But I have not learned enough to write on the subject this month. I did learn that in addition to speech synthesis there are also braille readers which work best with clean HTML , but I have not learned whether there are special requirements for coding for such machines. I also received a suggestion that the content Real Audio and other sound materials be made available visually for those with hearing disabilities. I guess turn about is fair play. Interesting, that using clean HTML without multimedia add-ons is effective and helpful for those with disabilities in hearing and in vision. One stop shopping.

Additional references on disabilities and access:

But the battle for clean HTML is being waged on another front. In the HTML related newsgroups, partisans are lining up and shouting at each other with religious fervor. The purported battle lines are between those who side with design and layout control (which I call fixed formatting) and those who believe in markup languages and user control of appearance.

The camps shout loudly across the abyss. Some of the HTMLers formerly known as purists now style themselves "pragmatists" while others seem unwilling to recognize that there are valid reasons for assuming control over precise layout and design. Those from the desk top publishing world or those who are used to the print medium insist that the HTML group are Luddites wedded to a mark up language that doesn't suit their needs for artistic control.

I resist using the term "pragmatists" for the HTMLers because, pragmatism always serves a purpose. When money speaks, it may seem "pragmatic" to give up accessibility for control if that is what the market wants. And commercial interests may be more comfortable with fixed formats, just as they are with image maps, and sound and video -- all features that interfere with accessibility.

A recenty suggested title for what I consider the enlightened view is "fundamentalists." But although that term has some merit and may be more descriptive than "purists" and "pragmatists." it carries some baggage as well. Still, the term may be more appropriate than 'HTMLers," which I have used, since good design and accessibility do involve more than HTML, as we saw with regard to speech friendly issues.

People in this camp are now strongly advocating cascading style sheets (CSS). I have not had the opportunity to experiment with style sheets, but apparently they give the Web author much more potential control over the page while leaving the viewer the ultimate decision as to whether to implement the style decisions chosen by the author or to turn them off. Unfortunately, very few browsers support CSS at this time. Apparently style sheets are simply ignored by browsers without CSS capability, This seems a very sensible solution. For more on CSS go to the Web Design Group pages.

As a writer for WindoWatch Magazine, which appears in PDF format, I find myself between a rock and a hard place. I will go out on a limb and state my preferences: Unless there is a very special reason, I believe that information on the web should be presented in the most generic and accessible format. I am grateful that selected articles from the WindoWatch archives are now being made available on line in HTML.

However, PDF is great for presenting graphic material. The screen shots and other graphics appearing in WindoWatch are good examples of this use. But I don't know many other reasons for storing material in that fashion. One example does, come to mind, I needed an IRS form this weekend. I logged on to the IRS web page and found the form in PDF format. I downloaded it and then viewed it in my Acrobat reader, which I obtained jut to read this mag. It looked great. Just like the real McCoy. But I couldn't get it to print. The print dialogue box opened and then ..... nothing.

It would still be hanging there if I hadn't rebooted. In the meantime, my wife had returned from the library with a photocopy.

But it does demonstrate that there are appropriate uses for fixed format pages. Still, PDF is not capable of being indexed by the Web Robots and I don't know whether there is any speech synthesizer which can read a PDF file.

So for the most part, I side with the fundamentalists.

The biggest fight seems to be not over the right to use fixed formatting. The fundamentalists do recognize anyone's right to publish in any format they want to. Heck, if David Seigel wants to publish a page in black text on black they won't object (they might even applaud). What they rightly object to is recommending and teaching others to use fixed format design.

I concur. If people want to limit the accessibility of their pages, that is their right -- even if it is a real pain when my browser hangs on one of their masterpoeces at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. But just as my home page bears a blue ribbon for free speech, so to do I value accessibility. Fixed format sites, proprietary extensions, RealAudio and RealVideo - - all of these are like great potholes on the information highway. Unfortunately there is no way to get sites that use these features to post warnings where they can be seen in time to slow down. Some of the more "enlightened" sites have taken to using browser detection software. Unfortunately, if that software makes a mistake, the users get stuck. Why not use a generic opening page with selectable options? Surfers still can think for ourselves. We are not robots... Are we?

Copyright 1997 Leonard Grossman

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