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Re: WAI needs to rethink and revisit


From: Terence de Giere
Date: May 18, 2002 7:50PM

The World Wide Web Consortium is revisiting the accessibility issue with
the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines version 2.0, work in progress,
but not much detail yet.


Hopefully the result will be more flexible and clearer guidelines based
on the feedback and reaction to the first set of guidelines. The Web
content guidelines are interconnected with the development of both user
agent accessibility guidelines and authoring tool accessibility
guidelines, so the process is made more complicated by this interdependency.

As for font sizes, there is definitely a clash between the desires of
graphic artists and accessibility. My experience has been graphic
artists tend to prefer fixed sizes and layouts for pages, a habit that
comes over from print media, where it is possible to specify fixed sizes
effectively. Graphic artists also usually have a fine sense of visual
proportion and composition. That bent of mind naturally carriers over to
the Web, but the differences between browsers makes that difficult with
a single page of code, or a single page of CSS. The differences appear
least with fixed sizes of fonts, but there are small differences even here.

With accessible Web page format, one has to think of a design that for
the most part is visually is coherent and composed, but can maintain
that coherence with a lot of variability in font size, line length, with
text reflow etc. This can be done, but it will never be as predictable
as a completely fixed page.

The pages on the Internet are like a book, but they are not books, and
will be rendered in many ways the designer cannot anticipate. The user
can turn off styling. The user can subsitute their own style. Certain
browsers, such as WebTV type devices will always substitue their own
fonts, and reformat the page to some extent so it will be readable on a
TV screen. Low vision browsers (as distinguished from screen magnifiers)
also substitute their own format, usually blocky sans serif text on a
plain background with a choice of colors and sizes set by the user.

The fixed format "every page looks the same everywhere" mentality is one
of the reasons the Web has become so inaccessible, because it involves
twisting HTML in ways it was not really designed for, to work around
browser variability to maintain an identical rendering as much as possible.

This is not to say a fixed design is bad, but perhaps it is not really
the best approach to Internet media. It is a habit that is hard to
break, expecially because the various graphical browsers are not on par
with each other with regard to CSS. Perhaps visual designers could be
given assignments that involve creating more than a single fixed design,
or come up with ideas for creating designs that reflow and can change
size but maintain some kind of visual integrity over a reasonable range
of browser window widths and font sizes, etc. Its a creative challenge.

There are challenges like this in print media, such as having to use
just two colors of ink instead of four or five or six. Certain kinds of
printing cannot register images exactly, so some flexibility in the
position of page elements is required. One learns the capabilites of the
medium, and then works back to the techniques to make it work
effectively with whatever limitations are there.

Accessibility poses certain restrictions on Web designers and Web
developers, but that does not mean an aesthetic or a practical,
functional solution cannot be found.

One of the definitions of the word WAR almost seems applicable here: a
state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism; a struggle or competition
between opposing forces, for a particular end. If accessibility is to
win, then designers will have to give up some of their current
practices, but new solutions to maintaining visual design, creating
audio designs, etc., are ongoing, so in the end, perhaps everyone will
win. We just have to keep learning.

Terence de Giere

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