Saturday, October 23, 2004

desperately seeking standards

Yesterday, at the last minute, I was invited to attend an Accessibility Risk Management Assessment workshop. Sounds like fun, doesn't it. Considering that it was a 5 hour phone hookup...

Actually, I really enjoy the working side of implementing Accessibility features and Web Standards - I'm not much of a one for committee meetings and yabbering on about process etc. But it was nice to be asked.

And why was I asked? Well, it seems that in the enormous company that I work for, I'm the only elearning developer who has bothered doing anything about this side of our work.

We have an inhouse development tool that was designed as a simple no-brainer interface for anyone who wants to put together some content and turn it into an online module. The problem with it though, is that it turns out code that is all over the place and doesn't comply to many Web Standards or allow any tweaking to make it accessible. The menus can't even be tabbed to as they are script driven.

There's also the issue of 'anyone can do it' so anyone does, and these people have no background in online or elearning development and to make it worse, are not given any training or guidelines. It's like letting kids loose in a sweet shop - they go mad.

I hate that tool. I hate it with a vengeance. So, being the rebel that I am, I continue to use my trusty Dreamweaver and Flash. To make myself feel righteous, I mean, to do the right thing, I have completely reworked my templates and rebuilt them in XHTML and filled them full of accessibility and standard goodies. And I've written a bunch of guidelines for the guys in my team based on these and my findings relating to how to implement them in our environment.

Even though the main templates use a frameset (yes, yes I don't want to hear about it - there are darn tootingly good reasons to do so; it's a corporate intranet and the learners are guided straight into the learning module and we don't want them to go anywhere else etc), its all been implemented correctly. We have visible and invisible skip links, we have alt tags, proper tabbing order, onclicks not mouseovers, print styles, ability to increase font size, accessible flash, careful naming of links and on and on...

So, in a way, I know what I'm talking about and can offer some advice, which is why I was asked.

I am a bit concerned about their approach however. The presentation pack was specifically titled 'making the intranet more accessible to visually impaired users'. Now, why target just this group in something could end up being a company wide initiative? And they didn't define 'visually impaired'. Are we talking blind, low vision, colour blind - what? How about staff that can't use a mouse? What about Web Standards to improve all those other things that it does affect - lower bandwidth, device independence, future-proofing? I think they need to get the definition of what they are aiming to do right,before they continue.

The other element they haven't really thought through properly is that the target audience needs to be defined for particular circumstances. My audience is front of house sales consultants who use a myriad of inhouse systems to deal with customer enquiries and product provisioning. Even though I have added things to my templates that would only benefit a blind person using a screenreader, in reality it would be extremely difficult for a blind person to fulfil this particular role simply due to the complex nature of these systems.

For a screenreader to assist such a person, it would take an awful long time just to handle one call, and call handling time is one of the drivers of company revenue - less time with the customer, more customers can be dealt with, therefore increased revenue. To go anywhere near making these systems themselves accessible would be out of the ballpark as far as cost and implementation. No matter how much we would like to go down this path, and have true equality for all, I can't see it happening. So, is it realistic to cater training that is specific to the consultant audience group, to blind people? We would not, for instance, design a car for a blind person, well, not unless we step into some sci-fi realm.

Can we accept that some jobs are unsuitable for some impairments? Not that impaired people are unsuitable for the job - it's not their limitations so much as the limitations of current systems and processes. On the otherhand, we do have extremely visually impaired or blind employees in other roles that suit them very well.

And now back to reading Designing with Web Standards by my old mate, Jeffrey Zeldman as I managed to pick up a really cheap copy on ebay!

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