Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "writeback" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+writeback" bit from the end of the URL.

Mon, 28 Jun 2004

Access Versions

In The accessibility of segregation, Mike Davies draws a parallel between having a separate accessible version of a site with Apartheid. Bestkungfu takes up the baton, comparing accessible versions of sites to old segregation legislation in the US.

The argument is that with current web technology, making one’s main site accessible is an entirely feasible goal, and that accessible or text-only versions of otherwise inaccessible sites is saying “this site isn’t for the likes of you; you should go round the corner instead”.

I have a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. The first, naturally, is that Woking’s “Easy Access” version comes dangerously close to being Part Of The Problem (and nobody likes to be told that their best efforts are a bit like racism), and the second is that making the comparison totally belittles the damage and hurt that Apartheid and other segregation laws caused. The purpose of segregation laws was to keep blacks out of white-only areas. The intent (whether misguided or not) of creating a separate accessible version of a site is to overcome obstacles that are already there. Comparing the two is vastly over-aggressive and inflammatory.

The physically-disabled generally have separate toilets in public buildings. This isn’t segregation.

The physically-disabled often have separate, allocated parking spaces in car parks. This isn’t segregation.

There are sometimes push-button exits at wheelchair-height for otherwise difficult-to-manage doors. This isn’t segregation.

The natural tendency when faced with the notion that one’s site might not be fully-accessible is to try to create new features to address this problem. It just isn’t a case of “Good — keep those blind bastards out of our good, pure, 20-20 kingdom” being followed by “You mean we have to accommodate them? Well, I suppose they can have their own site over there, as far away as possible from the rest of us”. The fact that, with advanced CSS, it’s not necessary to treat accessible site design as being like accessible loo-design does not make this tendency bigoted. It means, more than anything, that advanced CSS isn’t yet in common enough use.

A fair criticism of accessible-versioning, however, is that the accessible version of a site is almost always hidden away, that switching between the two versions is almost impossible, and that content for the accessible version is always an afterthought to the main version. The Woking “Easy Access” version is very deliberately not like this. There’s a clear link on each version of a page to the alternate version, and the versioning is entirely handled as a function of the CMS’s presentation layer. Whenever a new page is added to the site, the “Easy Access” version goes right along with it.

The main site is always (at least) WAI-A compatible. The “Easy Access” version is always (at least) WAI-AA compatible. The main site is actually pretty accessible.

But it was designed using lots of presentational HTML and plenty of images. It didn’t print well. So, the function was developed for the old CMS (and, naturally, I carried it through to the new one) to allow “frameworks” — an opportunity for the CMS to completely re-version the site using different templates and content filters as part of the presentation layer. There are four frameworks in use for the site at the moment — two of them are internal, and one of them is the “Easy Access” version. It’s intent is to make an already pretty accessible site even more accessible, whilst presenting a stripped-down, “graphics-lite” version for anybody who wants it. The stripped-down version is also good for printing.

Now, much of this will be comprehensively addressed by the “Web Standards” version of the site I’m hoping to be able to start on soon. This will remove much of the presentational markup and “chrome” from the HTML, and separate (separate! Gosh!) print stylesheets will address the problems with printing from the main site. We could even present a stripped-down version by incorporating a stylesheet-switcher widget.

But the content-filtering offered by the “Easy Access” framework will still probably be useful, in that as time goes on we’ll be adding more and more HTML from external sources into the site. The e-Forms tool in which Woking have invested produces even more laboriously-presentational markup than our own site. Being able to run this through some very targeted XSLT will, I’m sure, reap some accessibility benefits.

We’ll see — perhaps it would be best to run the e-Forms through the XSLT stylesheet anyway, and dispense with versioning altogether. All I know is: the “Easy Access” version has been a great success, and has proved useful to many people other than the blind or partially-sighted. None of them feel discriminated against by its presence.