How accessibility is decided in the specs

http://www.w3.org/Bugs/Public/show_bug.cgi?id=10642

Read the comments.

The reasoning you see here is pretty much word for word why they are suggesting alt attributes be removed (authors abuse it, authors ignore it, why does anyone want it anyway). When actual users say “this feature would help me use the web” I don’t get how someone else can say “well this issue it closed because I can’t imagine why anyone would find this useful, end discussion.” Whoa.

Recently (uh, months and months ago) on a mailing list I’m on, someone mentioned longdesc. I replied I was taught as a web dev never to use it: that many user agents ignored it, than it prevented you from linking images (which often is part of the architectural design) and that users didn’t encounter it much. But the response was fairly positive for longdesc. People wanted it. You just don’t hear them in the bug reports when people are writing specs.

Anyone think this is weird?

Overseeing an HTML spec must be quite a burden. Ian Hickson comes across as rather tetchy and brusque in that exchange: his “cargo cult” remark is currently being retweeted under #disablism. Maybe Google should consider sending him on a diplomacy re-education course.

Funnily enough, Ian Hickson has written in support of eugenics

Are they really aiming to snuff out alt altogether?

It is not the first time in HTML5 they tried to get rid of the ALT attribute and it won’t be the last; although the last time was for the IMG element itself.

I cannot comment much about the VIDEO element though because I don’t follow their work closely enough.

I’m not aware of anyone having proposed to remove the alt attribute. Citation needed?

In 2007, it was proposed it may be omitted completely from an image I probably mixed up my words.

Are there any blind people working on the spec?

PS: While I find his “cargo cult accessibility” remark an audacity, the way such things spread via Twitter (and the likes) is unsettling to me.

Funnily enough, Ian Hickson has written in support of eugenics

Meh. This was written 8 years ago: hopefully by now he’s realised how terrible governments are at regulating human biology. Not sure what this has to do with how stuff is decided in a technical specification.

Are they really aiming to snuff out alt altogether?

No, bad wording on my part: it’s required in HTML4 and XHTML1, it has been an endless debate whether it would be required (and therefore show up in the validator if you didn’t use it) in HTML5. Longdesc, by contrast, is to be removed entirely.

In 2007, it was proposed it may be omitted completely from an image I probably mixed up my words.

I’m the one who mixed them when talking about the alt debate, which I followed for a while before giving up. They weren’t debating to remove it, but to stop making it required.

…the way such things spread via Twitter (and the likes) is unsettling to me.

Hm, well the HTML5 specs and discussions themselves are public. I’d say stuff like Twitter etc can call more attention to specific topics and discussions, which isn’t a bad thing: there are many developers who take a look, walk away, hear about something, take another look, etc.

Every time I take a look, I walk away very quickly. Who the heck wants to get embroiled in debates with attitudes like that floating around? Is it choice between, keep your hair or (possibly maybe) improve the spec of a language you (may) use?

An interview with WaSP in 2009 provided him with an opportunity to disavow his interest, but he chose not to. He did however state:

“People with disabilities are just as important to me in my work on HTML 5 as is anyone else.”

So, hopefully, he is able to isolate his aforementioned views on the future of the gene pool from the task of providing an HTML standard suitable for the current range of human intelligence and abilities. :eye:

Unfortunately, avoiding debates tends to encourage and empower those who display such attitudes.

@poes, agreed that Twitter is an excellent platform to make things known faster. Twitter is also too often used to start a wildfire and blowing things way out of proportion. I am not suggesting it was the case here. There have been some retweets of #disablism, as Victorinox pointed out, but they’ve not been out of line.

But my main question was whether there’s a blind person on the spec team? Wouldn’t that make things easier? There’ve been two people on that mailinglist wishing for that feature and both were blind. The ones who insisted that the feature wasn’t relevant were made by people with vision.

To respond to some of the comments above:

There are a number of disabled users who contribute to the HTML development, both publicly (through the W3C and the WHATWG) and privately (by sending me comments directly).

The “alt” attribute isn’t going anywhere. It’s a core part of making HTML device-independent.

The discussion above has nothing to do with alt="", it’s about a completely different issue: the poster image that is used in the visual presentation of a “video” element while the video hasn’t loaded. There’s nothing to make accessible there. It would be like making CSS background images “accessible” by adding a CSS alt() function or something like that. Or making the smilies on this forum “accessible” by saying what colour they are.

One of the big problems the W3C HTML WG has right now is that there are a small number of people on the group who have labeled themselves “accessibility experts” but are, well, not. They have looked at what real accessibility experts have done, and without understanding it, they try to come up with other features that they think are equivalent and then ask (demand might be a better word) that those features be added to the language. This is analogous to what the post-WW2 cargo cults did (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult), whence my comment which has apparently been widely retweeted. It would be like looking at buildings with wheelchair access ramps, thinking “oh we just need a ramp then”, and building this: http://failblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/fail-owned-handicap-ramp-fail.jpg

Personally, I’m interested in actually making the Web more accessible. The aforementioned people are more interested in making the Web seem more accessible (q.v. http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/21/accessibility-is-a-harsh-mistress). My being testy and brusque comes from having to continuously fight the suggestions that would trade real accessibility for the appearance of accessibility. :slight_smile:

and building this: http://failblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/fail-owned-handicap-ramp-fail.jpg

Hey, don’t I know that guy?!? : )

In any case, both the store with the too-steep-to-possibly-be-legal ramp and the one next door to it (who still has stairs), the result is the same: if you’re in a wheelchair and you want to go inside, someone’s got to pick you up and carry you in. Like a baby.

When you’re going through YouTube results from a search (and their search isn’t great), you get a lot of videos with the same title (usually the name of the song or the skit). You can either click through each one to find the one you’re looking for, or you can call for sighted help to tell you which has the preview-frame (poster) with the album cover art on it (the only one with good sound quality). I’m sure that wasn’t the whole original idea behind showing a frame of the video as a picture, but that’s how they are increasingly being used… even when there are also plenty of videos where there is no rhyme or reason or meaning for which frame is shown (just as we have plenty of images who have no rhyme or reason or meaning and we have the option to say alt=""… or in HTML5, just leave it out entirely).

posteralt="" wouldn’t help for that, since there’s essentially zero chance that YouTube will ever have textual descriptions of the poster frames available. As an industry we’d be much better off spending our resources where it can make a difference, e.g. in speech-to-text automatic transcription that can then be searched, autosummarised, and displayed next to the videos, which would help all users, not just those who can’t see the poster frame.

Thanks for the clarification! :slight_smile:

Ian, I wonder if you could take a moment to discuss, specifically, which participants on the W3C HTML WG are labeling themselves as “accessibility experts” but aren’t?

One of them posted the bug, another contributed to it. Neither of them I would consider are in the group of self labelled accessibility experts (actually labelled by you as ‘self labelled’) you refer to or perhaps they are now, because they dared to question your belief about what they as users with disablities should be allowed to perceive.

I laughed when i read that comment by Ian. I think saying x, y, and z are/aren’t experts are relative. Personally, I have been called an expert and a SME in accessibility, I have even wow’ed an author of WCAG 1.0, who is recognized as an expert. But since I don’t write about it on my blog a lot, or a book, I can be seen not as an expert. Should I be on WG mailinglists, yeah, but I am not.

I don’t think it would be wise for me to name names.

Incidentally, another point I should make, which applies equally to users with disabilities as it does to everyone else, is that users in general are woefully unable to report their own needs. Usability studies are a classic example of this — if you ever get the opportunity to watch a software usability study, you will see that it is very common for users to claim a particular need, despite acting in a manner that shows that they are completely mistaken about that need.

An example from the accessibility sphere is the “longdesc” attribute. If you ask users what they want in terms of images, they will frequently claim that what would be most useful for them is a way of getting longer descriptions of what images are. However, if you actually look at how AT users interact with the Web, it becomes abundantly clear that this isn’t true: by and large they never actually seek out longer descriptions of images; indeed, they generally don’t find any need to even know that there are images.

We found similar things when we did the usability studies for the microdata feature (yes, we actually did usability studies for parts of HTML!). For example, people would claim to understand certain aspects of the feature, but would be unable to actually use them. It was only when we simplified the model beyond the point where authors claimed understanding that we ended up with a model that authors actually, in practice, understood.

The net result of all this is that when a user or author reports a bug, one has to be very careful to actually examine whether their request is actually sensible or not. The true experts are the ones who can tell the difference.

Another common mistake is to view the Web as primarily a visual medium, which must then be adjusted to work for AT users. This is the kind of approach that leads to “bolt-on” accessibility and poorly-devised features like longdesc="", summary="", or the aforementioned posteralt="". I feel this kind of approach basically is treating disabled users like second-class citizens.

The right way to design a device-neutral, medium-independent, universally accessibly markup language is instead to start from the standpoint of each kind of user — partially blind, hearing-impaired, having reduced motor control, speaking only English, etc — and to ensure that each feature makes sense in that context.

So for instance with video, if you think of it from the point of view of a completely blind user, you quickly realise that the visual part of the video is pointless. Instead what you need is to convey the action aurally — instead of making a video, you actually want to make an audio programme. In practice, this ends up meaning textual descriptions synchronised with the main audio track, since typically making two different programmes is too much effort and the visually-able part of the audience does want video.

Similarly, when you think of how to activate the playback of a media resource for a blind user, you would never consider having the video element be represented by an image, since the user can’t see images. You would want instead to just expose playback controls and information about the nature of the video (typically it’s title or other advisory information). This information would either be something inline in the page (e.g. in a paragraph adjacent to the video) or in the title="" attribute.

If you instead apply “cargo-cult” thinking, treating users of ATs as second-class citizens, you might come to a different conclusion: you would look at the visual page, think “Well there’s an image there, and all images need alternative text”, and you would ask for a posteralt="" attribute. But if you think of the AT users as first-class citizens, you would never even notice the poster frame.

Another example of how AT users are often viewed as second-class citizens is the summary="" attribute. If you think of AT users first, you would say “well any complex information structure must be explained to the reader” and you would put explanatory information about the table in the prose around the table (or in the caption, maybe). If you then think of visually-able users and look at the page, with its table description and its table, there would be nothing to change: there’s nothing wrong with providing visually-able users lots of information about the table. It’s only if you go the other way around that summary="" makes sense: if you start with the visually able, you might not think to include a description; if you then think of the AT users and decide they need a description, you might be tempted to say that the information shouldn’t be shown to the visually able since you hadn’t thought of it when you were considering them and therefore it should be hidden in an attribute.

I hope that better explains many of the decisions in the contemporary HTML specification. The tl;dr message is just “think of all your users, don’t think of disabled users second”.

The usability studies you did with microdata were hopelessly flawed. The sampling was too small and self-selecting, both of which cast doubt on any findings–much less findings used to extrapolate from, for wider use. The whole purpose of your little exercise was to prove the justification of your point. Flawed, absolutely, hopelessly.

The same with your argument against longdesc–your analysis is limited, based on queries to Google data. Your view on table summary again based on queries to Google data and a single video of a single subject. Flawed data, hopelessly compromised by researcher bias.

It seems to me that your belief in your understanding exceeds your actual knowledge on the subject, but you’re so absolutely positively sure of the superiority of your understanding that you’re telling a blind person you know more about what a blind person needs than he does. The problems inherent in your approach is that you’re one person making the decisions as to what is a viable user request; only one person and frankly, not a very empathetic person–you’re not really capable of deciding what is a meaningful request from someone who differs from you.

I’ve known of your interesting viewpoints so nothing surprises me much. However, that the W3C would tolerate you writing something like “cargo cult accessibility” in a bug request is astonishing, and the organization should be deeply ashamed.

It would be like looking at buildings with wheelchair access ramps, thinking “oh we just need a ramp then”, and building this: http://failblog.files.wordpress.com/…-ramp-fail.jpg

In any case, both the store with the too-steep-to-possibly-be-legal ramp and the one next door to it (who still has stairs), the result is the same: if you’re in a wheelchair and you want to go inside, someone’s got to pick you up and carry you in. Like a baby.

Sigh.

Well, clearly neither of you, nor the person who made that #fail image, have traveled much with a person who uses a wheelchair. True, that ramp is way too steep. True, the Americans with Disability Act specifies the maximum steepness of a ramp without handrails, and a ramp with handrails —*and this ramp doesn’t meet either part of the ADA spec. And true, many people in wheelchairs (of the motorized kind, or the hospital kind) could never use that ramp.

But clearly you’ve never spent any significant time with someone who uses a manually-controlled, custom-fit wheelchair. If you had, you’d understand how and when that ramp would be useful. Because in some cases it is. And also, you’d understand how stupidly insulting it is to call someone “a baby” because they ask for and get assistance sometimes.

Accessibility is complex. What people need and don’t need is different from person to person to person. The point of making things more accessible is that you provide resources for many, many different people, with and without disabilities, to do the things they want to do.

I don’t understand why the accessibility experts who’ve been working on HTML5, giving feedback and making suggestions, are being dismissed. Is it because they are have disabilities, and there’s an assumption that the later disqualifies them from the former? That makes no sense.

A user experience designer is also a user. All users are not good user experience designers (hell no, even when they all think they are), but all user experience designers are also users. All people with disabilities are not accessibility experts, no way. But accessibility experts who also have disabilities are still accessibility experts.

(And since Hixie didn’t bother to provide alt text or description for the photo in question, I will. It’s a photo of the entrance of a store, where on the left there are three steps to get into the store. On the right, there’s a very steep ramp spanning the same height, in the same distance — so it’s probably at a 35-40% angle. The ramp is painted with a wheelchair symbol. And there’s a man leaning on the ramp smiling. Over the image are the words “Handicapped Access. FAIL. failblog.org.”)

Of course not… just trust him though, he knows.

However, specific to this bug; it was filed by a blind user who has just spent 2 years working directly with the Drupal 7 community ensuring that Drupal 7 is significantly more accessible to both content recipients, as well as content authors. He has worked on specific patches within D7 core, which have been committed, and so whether he is an “expert” or not is not relevant. He is a blind user with a close and clear understanding of authors and users, and specifically of blind authors and users such as himself. Or are those credentials not enough to ‘allow’ him to make this statement:

“As I explained above, the author is setting a poster. There is therefor a
visual image on the page, it conveys meaning (or at least has the ability to
convey meaning), I want the meaning as much as someone who can see the image.” - http://www.w3.org/Bugs/Public/show_bug.cgi?id=10642#c8

Expert or not, what about this request from a blind person is hard to understand?

An example from the accessibility sphere is the “longdesc” attribute. If you ask users what they want in terms of images, they will frequently claim that what would be most useful for them is a way of getting longer descriptions of what images are. However, if you actually look at how AT users interact with the Web, it becomes abundantly clear that this isn’t true: by and large they never actually seek out longer descriptions of images; indeed, they generally don’t find any need to even know that there are images.

This kind of binary thinking is, frankly, bull-feathers. There are many types of users, and there are many types of blind users. An interesting point of distinction is between those who have been blind from birth, and those who lost their sight later in life. For those blind from birth it is often true that rich visual descriptions are often not that relevant, as they have nothing to compare those descriptions against. But for those who have lost their sight later in life, they do have the visual memories to draw upon, and those users often do appreciate good descriptions. Mr. Hickson claims that “…they generally don’t find any need to even know that there are images.” This bold assertion is based upon what, exactly? Is there a study, survey or other unbiased source as the foundation of this claim? If a graphic images does convey some critical information, then blind users want to know that too: if it is a diagram from last week’s Computer Science lecture, then wqho says it’s not important? But broad sweeping statements make great sound-bites… and Ian Hickson is actually very good at that kind of manipulation, he even writes about it and practices it: http://ian.hixie.ch/bible/handling-people

The net result of all this is that when a user or author reports a bug, one has to be very careful to actually examine whether their request is actually sensible or not. The true experts are the ones who can tell the difference.

…the subtext being that he knows more than actual blind users what blind users need and want. After all, he’s a ‘true expert’. Am I the only one who reads this tripe and shake my head in disgust?

Another common mistake is to view the Web as primarily a visual medium, which must then be adjusted to work for AT users. This is the kind of approach that leads to “bolt-on” accessibility and poorly-devised features like longdesc="", summary="", or the aforementioned posteralt="". I feel this kind of approach basically is treating disabled users like second-class citizens.

“I’m confused. Why would you (a blind user) want to know what the poster frame is? How does it affect you?” (Ian Hickson - http://www.w3.org/Bugs/Public/show_bug.cgi?id=10642#c7)

In other words, because you are blind you don’t need to know what this is. Every sighted person does, but you - blind person - you don’t. Trust me, it’s not important…

(and Mr. Hickson dares to lecture on creating second class citizens?)

The right way to design a device-neutral, medium-independent, universally accessibly markup language is instead to start from the standpoint of each kind of user — partially blind, hearing-impaired, having reduced motor control, speaking only English, etc — and to ensure that each feature makes sense in that context.

So let’s examine this.

HTML5’s <video> element will also allow an author to specify an image, any image (any image) as the ‘poster frame’ - a graphic that fills the same region as the intended video playback ‘box’. Upon activation of the video, the image will be replaced with this new content. Conceptually we now have 3 things: a region that contains content within a web page, a graphic file (.jpg/.png), and a video (.ogv/.webm). From the perspective of what is sitting on the server, there are 3 files: .html, .jpg and .ogv. To ensure “medium-independence” we need to ensure that all of the visual elements used on a web page have an equivalency for those who cannot see. It should not matter that based upon a user interaction one visual element is replaced by another: both visual elements require descriptions for the non-sighted. It context, doesn’t that make sense?

Apparently not to Mr. Hickson. He thinks that the still image is meaningless, it has no need of description because what is important is the video, not the image. Says who? If the image is not important (or stands the possibility of being important) why does HTML5 even allow the author to specify an image? Why not just always use the first frame of the video, and provide a textual description of the video for non-sighted users. The moment you allow authors to specify an image as the poster frame you’ve opened the door for the author to use an image that may have absolutely nothing to do with the video (http://www.cineshoppe.com/graphics/ex0065.jpg alt=“box of popcorn”) Not allowing the non-sighted to know what this image is makes them second-class. Deciding for them that knowing or not knowing is immaterial to them is the worst kind of condescension I’ve ever encountered.

If you instead apply “cargo-cult” thinking, treating users of ATs as second-class citizens, you might come to a different conclusion: you would look at the visual page, think “Well there’s an image there, and all images need alternative text”, and you would ask for a posteralt="" attribute. But if you think of the AT users as first-class citizens, you would never even notice the poster frame.

Remember, this request came from a blind user. No matter how much Mr. Hickson wants to argue this away, the reality is that an informed blind user/developer/engineer didn’t see an image there - but he knows it exists and wants to know about it more - a not unreasonable request. A truly Universal Design pattern would account for this, and frankly is a problem not that difficult to solve… except Mr. Hickson as editor didn’t think of it first, and when it comes to “accessibility experts”, well he knows only too well that he’s smarter than a boatload of them, so…

The up-side at this time is that this inequity and inequal treatment of non-sighted users is now a W3C Issue - a point serious enough to block HTML5’s progress to Last Call until resolved. Hopefully despite Mr. Hickson’s myopic view of what is and isn’t required for Universal Access, we’ll get this right.