UQ Students should read the Disclaimer & Warning

Note: This page dates from 2005, and is kept for historical purposes.

COMP1800 Draft Speech

This forms part of the English Tutorial component of COMP1800.

This resulted in a mark of 3 ½ out of 5.

Hi, my name is Ned Martin and I’ll be talking about Web Accessibility.

Hi, my name is Ned Martin, and I’ll be talking about Web Accessibility.

What exactly is Web Accessibility? Well, firstly, what is the web? We probably all know that answer. It’s what we call the vast collection of web pages on the internet. Originally, the internet was conceived in a scientific environment for scientific and military purposes by people more interested in content than presentation. It was a semantic text based environment. When the internet went public several years ago, it grew rapidly and, as more non-scientific people began to use it, presentation became more important. A huge page of text doesn’t sell products as well as lots of pretty pictures on a nice background. To make things look more pleasing, they introduced many presentational things into the design of web pages – which did have the desired effect and the web looked better for the majority of users.

Unfortunately, this had the undesired effect of making the web very hard to use for many disabled people. Imagine you wanted to buy something from the web. People are going to respond better to a nicely formatted, pleasantly coloured page with images and data neatly presented in tables, and that’s just what everyone on the web made in their efforts to get as many people as possible to read their page or buy their products. Then imagine that you’re blind and can’t see tables, let alone images – this is going to make it rather hard to use that website, but back then, before the days of mass litigation and all invading political correctness, no one much cared.

In the past few years, as the web has grown to a major source of public information, there has been a renewed thrust to get people to make their websites so that anyone can use them, regardless of whether they are blind, unable to use the normal navigation tools we use like mice and keyboards, or just using a PDA or mobile phone with a tiny screen. This movement has been hastened by several lawsuits successfully brought against commercial websites that weren’t useable by disabled people, and the introduction in America of laws that specify federal sites must be accessible by all people. Here in Australia it is even stricter, as Australian websites are covered by our disabilities discrimination legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people because of their disability. So, in principle, your website has to be as accessible to disabled people as it is to anyone else, and that is what Web Accessibility is all about – creating websites that are accessible by anyone.

Most websites designers expect the majority of their users to be using a “standard” web browser that supports images, tables and all the latest fancy technologies and they design accordingly. Problems arise when people use non-standard browsers, ranging from people stuck in a time warp with archaic browsers, through to the many web-enabled small-screen devices around, like the latest mobile phones, right through to people who are forced by a disability to use screen readers that convert the text of a website into voice. All these users have to be catered for at the same time. There’s three main approaches to this, the old and now unacceptable “most people use normal browsers and the rest can go jump” approach, sadly still in common use, designing multiple sites for different users, or the holy grail of web accessibility, making your one website accessible to everyone. Designing multiple sites is the simplest approach to web accessibility, but it does have some drawbacks. The worst of these is that you have to design several entire sites to cater for different users, basically all duplicating the same content. Imagine every time you update something in one site, you have to change it in all the other sites, and there’s no guarantee someone won’t come along one day and get you to make another site for their particular need. That’s why it’s better to try to get your one website to be accessible, and, ironically, this is possible by considering how the web first started. It was text only, and text was marked-up in such a way that it had a semantic meaning. Paragraphs were marked as such, headings were marked as headers, in various levels of importance – each part of a document was clearly labelled. That’s the trick to creating accessible websites; the underlying content has to be presented in a way that’s both semantically clear, and not cluttered with stylistic information that is only going to get in the way of someone who can’t make use of it. Some things, like images, simply can’t be presented to, say, a blind person – but they can still be described, and that person’s browser can read that description out to them. On the other hand, you don’t want your viewers with their standard browsers being reminded of the 1980’s internet when they’re looking at your website. To overcome this we use a separate document containing stylistic information linked to your web pages that tells the browsers how to display those pages. This way, for the first time, the choice is up to the user. They can view your semantically rich content with or without your styling. A screen reader can look at your content, and use it’s semantic mark-up to figure out what’s what, and read a logical description to a blind user, and at the same time, a modern browser can look at your style sheet, apply it to your content, and display the colourful, content rich sites most of us are used to.

All work © Copyright 2003 Ned Martin

Updated with marks 11-Oct-2003