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Learning from CISTM 2009

I was recently involved in couple of panel discussions on Web Accessibility as well as Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing at the CISTM 2009 held at MDI Gurgaon. Sharing some quick learning from those discussions.

The first discussion focused on whether Web 2.0 poses challenges for web accessibility. The panelist were Rahul Gonsalves, a trained designer and a usability and accessibility enthusiast; Dinesh Kaushal, a lead developer at an accessibility solutions organisation and himself a developer of screen reader enabled for Indian languages; and yours truly. I believe that the topic was interesting for most people attending the conference. I say this because although the discussion started at a late hour and went on till almost 7:30 PM, we had a good audience which was very inquisitive and interacted actively. We primarily discussed what and why of web accessibility, some business considerations for making the web accessible and legal regulations around the world that necessitated equal accessibility for everyone. The participants were so involved in the discussion that we barely touched upon the aspects of Web 2.0 posing a challenge to accessibility.

Some of the interesting questions that came up during this discussion were:

  1. Do the laws make accessibility mandatory?
  2. Are the laws sufficient to make the web accessible?
  3. If i am a developer, is it really that important for me to consider accessibility while i'm struggling to deliver to ever changing client requirements.
  4. Isn't accessible design an overhead? Moreover doesn't accessible design render the website not so pleasing to the eye.
  5. We are having trouble with making web 1.0 accessible and you are now talking of Web 2.0 and accessibility. Isn't it too early to be discussing this?

Some of the responses the panel gave for the above questions were:

1A) No the laws today aren't mandatory, but increased activism by various disability groups have forced countries around the world to take this seriously and sooner or later some of the existing laws will be strengthened enough to make them mandatory. It will happen sooner than we expect.

1B) The fact that some of these laws are being refered to in the cases being argues gives enough indications that they will be made mandatory. Like for example the ADA which was refered to in case of the lawsuit.

2A) Of course, the laws are not sufficient. Just like with every other law, it is the enforcement of the law and the repercussions of not adhering with the law, that make the law being taken seriously. So while the laws will be made available and even made mandatory at a future date, the willingness of large and small organisations to follow the law will be determined by how the law is implemented.

2B) But another way to look at this is that unless new development efforts really incorporate some of the recommendations and guidelines, we will see yet more websites that are in-accessible inspite of the laws.

3) Well actually if a developer adheres to the prescribed standards for coding, they will not even have to think about the accessibility requirements since they will have been incorporated by design.

4) In fact it is a myth that accessible design renders the website ugly. Actually apart from a few changes made in the code, accessibility doesn't really interfere with rich user interfaces. The WCAG guidelines specify the techniques adequately.

5) As a matter of fact this is the rigt time to talk about Web 2.0 accessibility, since the developer community can be influenced to adopt some of the standards being considered for Web 2.0 accessibility. Also authoring tools and other resources can be developed if the adoption reaches a certain inflection point.

These questions and some of the queries from the participants after the discussion, made one think about the overall lack of awareness of the extent to which people with disability use the web today. For some it was unbelievable that a visually challenged person could actually use a personal computer extensively and work with most of the routinely used office applications. Others were curious to understand how the 'sip and puff' method for screen navigation and keyboard usage worked. A few others wondered how the security requirements (such as a CAPTCHA for registration) on an e-commerce website were fulfilled by visually challenged users. On the other hand it was also interesting to realise that people working in web accessibility space assume that the requirements for accessibility are obvious and staring us in the face.

As always having panelists who spoke from experience rather than text book knowledge helped to address many of the questions. Dinesh gave several insights from his experiences of developing accessibility solutions such as the screen reader for indian language as well as for mobile devices. Rahul spoke from his experiences of website design, the work he was currently involved in dealing with accessibility regulations in India as well as his interest in accessible design.

I will post the observations from the Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing discussion in a subsequent post.

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