Monday, August 16, 2010

when is accessible not accessible enough? the death of LongDesc

The current debate in Web dev circles about the intent to scrap the longdesc
(long description) tag in html 5 comes at just the time, in over 10 years as
a visually impaired screenreader user I've I have, for the first time, been
grateful for the existence of the tag which allows website authors to link
out to a separate page containing a textual (may media rich) description of
the content or purpose of that image. Typically for using with images,
comprehension of which are essential for the understanding of the content,
and where the alt tag is not adequate either in length or in the ability to
review it word-by-word or line-by-line.

A couple of years ago I sat my project management qualification (prince 2).
Plenty of aspects of the course gave cause for concern re accessibility, not
least getting the exam in an accessible format and agreeing how a visually
impaired person would complete the answer sheet, whether diagrams should be
in alternate format, who could give a verbal description of the diagram, or
whether I should automaticly be allowed to sit the only one of the selection
of exam papers that didn't include any questions which included diagrams
(which was the eventual solution).

Pretty much the only thing in fact that was simple was the access of the
manual. It cost a little extra but a version of CD rom was available from
The Stationary Office (formerly known as "Her majestys stationary office"),
basicly, the UK Governments publisher. The electronic version was a joy to
use, I can re flow the index in a number of ways depending on circumstances,
easily jump to sections by number, and best of all, have detailed and
expertly written description of complex flowcharts and diagrams. The one
and only need for, and proper use of the html longdesc tag I have ever seen.

Fast forward 2 years and I've just signed up for the next level of
accreditation, Managing Successful Programmes. Only this time the access
seems to have taken a step backwards. No surprise that the same debate
about the exam had to be had, should I have an accessible version of the
exam paper, on wait at the training venue until everyone else had competed
their exam, and then sit my exam, with a ley scribe to read the paper aloud?
- strangely I didn't go for the idea of starting an exam at 5PM on a Friday
evening at the end of a week long course so fought my corner for the
accessible alternative format paper, and thanks to 1 very helpful contact at
APMG (the accrediting body) that all seems to be sorted out.

Disappointingly though the accessibility of Government issue manuals (those
published by TSO) has take a big step backwards. They are according to the
accessibility statement WCAG1.0 level AA, and indeed they may well be if you
take passing an automated test as your guide. For the MSP manual is keyboard
accessible, and all images do have alternative text associated. However that
alternative text is not at all appropriate for the context in which those
images are to be used.

This is a technical manual and simply to include the name and number of an
image within alt text does not allow the visually impaired person to have
equivalent access to that content, given that, in this circumstance I can
think of only one reason for wanting such access, E.G. to use to flowchart,
process diagram etc.

The analogy I used to explain this difference in access to the publishers
was that "it's like shopping online for a pair of trousers. "Trousers" is
not a sufficient description to enable you to decide whether you want to
purchase that pair of trousers or another. Nor is "figure 2.4" sufficient
description of a digram to enable to put in to practice a professional

So, when is accessible, accessible enough?

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