With the debut of the WSP‘s ATF, a vigorous conversation has gotten underway. Joe Clark weighed in with some suggestions, Andy Clarke got some rousing comment action, and more have spoken up. This follows some recent and widely-cited thoughts from Matt May on WCAG 2.0 (with opposing view from Gez Lemon), and from Andy Clarke regarding accessibility and legislation (which inspired the publication of a different view from Andy Budd, not to mention another from Chris Kaminski). I’ll join the chorus with some points of my own. (Apparently, my recent post Liberal vs. Conservative was taken as a contribution to the discussion, which it wasn’t meant to be, although the points raised there are definitely worth considering in this context.)
This past May, I delivered a keynote at the 2nd International Cross-Disciplinary Workshop on Web Accessibility in Tokyo, and one of the major points I made was basically this: “Screen readers are broken as designed, and need to become speaking browsers”.
The problem is that screen readers are just that: they read what’s displayed on the screen for a sighted user. In other words, they let Internet Explorer render the Web page, scrape the visual result, and read that. I will acknowledge that in the tables-and-spacers era of design, this made a certain amount of sense. That era is ending; in an important sense, it’s already over and we’re just cleaning up the mess it left. Which is not to say that table markup is never and should not presently be used for layout purposes, nor is this to say that such markup should be used. Okay?
What I’m saying is that screen readers need to become speaking browsers: they need to ignore how the page is visually displayed, and read the content. Use semantic markup when it exists, and otherwise ignore the markup in favor of the actual words, whether it’s plain text or
alt text. Go from the beginning of the document to the end of the document, and ignore the CSS—at least that CSS which is meant for visual media, which these days is pretty much all of it.
You might wonder how a speaking browser should deal with a table-driven site, of which there are still quite a few, he said with some understatement. One distinct possibility is to do what I just said: ignore the non-semantic markup and read the content. I can accept that might fail in many cases, so I’ll present a fallback: DOCTYPE switching. If a document has a DOCTYPE that would put a visual browser into standards mode, then be a speaking browser. If not, then be a screen reader.
DOCTYPE switching has been, despite a few hiccups, incredibly successful in helping designers move toward standards, and allowing browsers to permit standards-based design without sacrificing every page that’s come before. The same, or at least a very similar, mechanism could help audible-Web tools.
The WaSP has done great things in their efforts to show vendors why Web design tools should produce standards-oriented markup and CSS. I sincerely hope they can produce similar results with audible-Web vendors.