Antisocial Networking

Sunday, February 17, 2008 0:22 | Filed in Accessibility, Disability, Equality, Web

Okay, I know this report came out a little while ago, but I’ve been too busy with other stuff (working with the PSWMG to contribute to an accessibility supplement for SOCITM’s Better Connected report, amongst other things) and it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to consider accessibility issues here.

So now I’m going to look at AbilityNet’s State of the eNation report 85, which basically concludes that social networking sites lock out disabled users.

But is it really that simple?

Bear in mind that I’ve just come off the back of being asked (alongside others) to assess the accessibility of local authority websites, and to draw reports together from a number of people, there are a few things that stick out in my mind.

As a web developer, I get fed up when people continually assert that javascript is inaccessible; javascript is increasingly supported by assistive technology, but it’s still very much on a hit and miss basis. You cannot rely on a particular piece of javascript being accessible, unless you’ve tested it with assistive technology. Similarly, you shouldn’t assume that javascript means a site is inaccessible unless you’ve tested it.

However, as a tester without disabilities, without access to a great deal of assistive technology (and certainly without the experience in using that technology that would be common to disabled users), it’s virtually impossible for me to test particular pieces of javascript on a case by case basis. So as a tester, you tend to say things like “this is inaccessible to users without javascript”.

It’s important to remember that unless this has been tested against specific assistive technologies, this is not the same as saying that the site is automatically inaccessible to disabled users; but it is certainly indicative that it is likely to cause problems.

The survey was carried out by AbilityNet’s consultants along with responses from over 100 disabled end-user testers, so it seems fair to say that it’s been fairly comprehensively looked at.

And now onto the report itself…

Firstly, the report provides an insightful quote into what people with disabilities actually get out of social networking sites, and therefore why accessibility is important:

If you go to a conference where you normally have to do good old fashioned, real life networking, meeting people, shaking hands. That kind of thing is very difficult for me being blind, I can’t necessarily go and pick out someone from a crowd who’s just done a really good speech to talk to. I can’t do that kind of thing but if I find out their name and where they work, for instance, I might be able to find them on Facebook and do my networking that wayDamon Rose, from BBC’s Ouch!

For a start, none of the sites reviewed would allow a user to sign up unless they could read the text on one of those distorted word-images (known as a CAPTCHA, these are designed to prevent spam bots from being able to sign up). Now in many cases reading distorted text on an image is difficult enough, but if you’re blind, it’s impossible (as obviously providing alt text would rather defeat the point of it).

What you could do would be to offer non-visual CAPTCHAs too: perhaps the opportunity to listen to a sound file, answer some text questions or something similar which does not rely on the ability to see. However, of the sites tested, only Yahoo and Facebook offered an alternative, and in both cases, the testers found these to be unusable in practice.

On the one hand, I’m not particularly surprised: I’m used to a number of sites being relatively accessible for the most part, but I work in the public sector where the importance of this is emphasised, plus as someone with an interest in web accessibility, I tend to “hang around” online with other people who also believe sites should be accessible to everyone (regardless of disability, choice of browser etc).

On the other hand, I’m thinking what the flip?? Have these people not heard of the Disability Discrimination Act? Okay, at least the two who have offered an alternative CAPTCHA have tried, but surely it has occurred to someone at the other sites that by not offering an alternative, they’re excluding people?

Now I use social networking: I joined Facebook at the start of January and check it regularly (mostly just to see what people are up to, and to stay in contact with other people — thanks Thea for pointing me in the direction). I am quite proud to add that I have so far managed to avoid adding any of the numerous applications where you can either claim to be an Ice Vampire or proudly announce your most depraved sexual fantasies to all and sundry.

And some of the things in the State of the eNation report ring very true to me:

Keyboard only users would experience varying degrees of difficulty, ranging from a lack of links that allow them to jump over main navigation links, to pages or features that were effectively inaccessible to keyboard users.State of the eNation report

I’ve never seriously tried to navigate without using the mouse, because on the few times I’ve attempted to navigate by pressing TAB I’ve generally given up quickly and gone back to using the mouse. But many people don’t have that option.

With no skip links used, keyboard users often had to tab many times to reach parts of the page. Our tester had to tab more than 50 times in order to login to the website.State of the eNation report

Screen-reader users also commented that the sheer amount of information on the pages, coupled with badly-labelled links made it nigh-on impossible to navigate through the pages. On the assumption that other social networking sites are similar to Facebook, the pages will for the most part be a jumble of unstructured, cluttered nonsense. However, that’s still unstructured, cluttered nonsense that disabled people have the right to be able to read through and use, even if they do just want to throw Ice Vampires at one another.

Social networking sites are also singled out for reliance on javascript:

Some of the key functionality of Bebo will be unavailable to users who do not have JavaScript enabled (Accessing user videos for instance). In fact, with JavaScript disabled, it was not even possible for our tester to create a Bebo account.State of the eNation report

Like I mentioned before, I think this is too simplistic, because while the report states:

[reliance on JavaScript] can often cause difficulties for those using older browsers, those with vision impairments using some special browsers, and those whose organisations disable JavaScript for security reasons.State of the eNation report

…I think this does not tell enough of the story. I want to know what proportion of users are using these browsers; whether the people who are using these browsers are theoretically able to upgrade to a browser that does support Javascript appropriately (and secondly whether or not this is financially viable).

The assumption that Javascript is automatically inaccessible is erroneous and needs to be challenged: what we need to know as developers are what what pieces of Javascript are supported, and which aren’t supported, by current assistive technologies.

The case for stopping support for old assistive technologies is somewhat different to the “to hell with bad browsers” argument, however. For the most part, browsers are free to download. Assistive technology isn’t (for the most part) and can be quite expensive. You can’t expect people to automatically have the most up to date versions of assistive technology, but equally we need to consider whether it’s appropriate to draw a line somewhere.

For example, Freedom Scientific’s JAWS screen reader is currently in version 9.0. I would take exception to anyone who insisted that their visitors needed to have version 9.0 in order to be able to use their websites, but I would think that someone saying their website wasn’t compatible with JAWS versions 1 to 4 was quite reasonable. It’s a case of deciding where this line is: I don’t have enough experience of assistive technology to know (or to know how javascript support has changed between different versions), but this would be of massive benefit to developers if any disability group was able to put a little time into researching this…

Now where was I?

Fixed size text. Most of the social networking sites size their text in pixels, which means that they aren’t easily adjustable by the user in Internet Explorer 6. That’s not ideal, but I would hope that as market share for IE6 decreases, being replaced by either IE7 with a zoom function, or something like Firefox which is perfectly happy to scale pixel unit text, this will become less of an issue.

Or are the sites fixing the text sizes to cover over the fact that their site designs aren’t sufficiently flexible?

Should a user override the default text size by changing their browser settings [on YouTube], some website content can overlap and make the text unreadable.State of the eNation report

In addition, alt text is identified as either being missing or simply not good enough across the social networking sites as a whole.

So did they do anything right?

Well, the report did identify that many of them use sans-serif fonts which are generally easier to read for users with dyslexia that serif fonts. Hurrah!

It’s not a lot, really, is it? There’s an awful lot more they still need to do. Being usable by people with screenreaders and people who can’t use a mouse would be a useful start… and as AbilityNet point out, there are also legal issues to consider…

in contrast to their apparent universal appeal [of social networking sites], they are effectively ‘locking out’ disabled visitors, the majority of whom can’t even register, let alone participate in the on-line communities they wish to join. This gross oversight is not only unethical, it is also clearly in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act (1999).AbilityNet

As well as the ones of friendship:

AbilityNet would like to emphasise that it is not only able-bodied people who have friends!AbilityNet

Indeed. And people with disabilities are just as entitled to waste their time, and that of their friends throwing Ice Vampires at one another as anyone else!

…and before anyone suggests the ghettoisation of the disabled by suggesting that there should be a separate social networking application for the disabled, can I just remind you that — rather inconveniently for that idea — disabled people are still technically allowed to be friends with non-disabled people, so the solution needs to include everyone.

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2 Comments to Antisocial Networking

  1. Antisocial Networking - The Paciello Group Blog says:

    February 19th, 2008 at 11:07 am

    [...] Antisocial Networking – Jack Pickard comments on the recent eNation report about the accessibility of social networking sites. He question’s and categorises as simplistic, assumptions within the report in regards to Screen Reader support for JavaScript. [...]

  2. Rachel says:

    February 22nd, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    With no skip links used, keyboard users often had to tab many times to reach parts of the page. Our tester had to tab more than 50 times in order to login to the website.

    I’m not admitting to which public sector body I work for (I’d be run out of town pretty damned sharpish on most of the web forums I hang around on if I admitted I worked for an organisation who’s site was so appallingly designed, both from an aesthetics and usability/accessibility point of view) but a couple of years ago I was invited to meet with our head of IT after he found out about my web design work and my interest in accessibility. He asked me if I’d take a quick look over the site (but only if I wasn’t too busy) and let him know if I found any particular accessibility problems. A couple of days later I emailed him a three page list of all the problems I’d found.

    Top of my hit list was the fact the site displays both HTML 4.01 validation and ‘AA’ conformance badges, despite meeting neither, and the fact that to reach the page for a service I’d imagine the public would quite often look for, using keyboard navigation takes 158 tabs.

    “Oh, I thought they’d use the text only version,” was the response I got. So I tried that too. 57 tabs.

    The defence? The whole site’s apparently tied in to the absolutely appalling £multi-K CMS they went and bought, and short of tearing it all down and starting from scratch, there’s not much they can do about it.

    So that’s okay then. *sigh*

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