Category: Web

Scripting Enabled debrief

I spent a great weekend up in London at the Scripting Enabled conference and hack day. It was really great to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while and to meet new people as well. There were a couple of “click” moments like bumping into Peter Abrahams while scanning through the alphabetically-challenged name tags and then figuring out that the lovely lady from Devon was Laura Whitehead who had recently blogged about my list of accessibility videos!

The Scripting Enabled difference


I come away from web conferences and geek meets inspired and chomping at the bit to get working on some of the ideas that have come out of such events. I get back to my cave, start blogging about something that I need to get out there, get distracted by something I wanted to look up (“Right, let’s open that in another tab and deal with it later”), rarely properly finish the entry, get back to doing proper work and not find the time to work on that cool idea or at least put the idea out there. Well, no more, damn it!

What has been the difference at Scripting Enabled this week? The hack day which followed the day of talks and discussion made sure I took the time out to do something with an idea.

Doing the hack day straight after the talks meant things were fresh in our minds and a lot of the clever people who were at the conference were on hand for the day of hacking to work with on an idea and to bounce ideas off of. Having people in the same room with different abilities and disabilities really made the hack day a hive of activity.

On top of that, the event was free to attend. Christian did a fantastic job of pulling together the sponsorship, venues, speakers, hackers… There are lots of people who have given to this event to bring together great people to produce results. I can’t wait for the next one now!

What did I do? I worked in a group of beautiful people to improve accessibility of maps on the Web using the Google Maps API. We were so chuffed to have something to show at the end of the day, but we’re not quite ready to show the world yet. Expect more words from me on that.

In the meantime, check out the photos from the event and keep an eye on the Scripting Enabled site.

Help save the Accessibility Institute

Most people with an interest in web accessibility are likely to have at some point stumbled across the work of the Accessibility Institute at the University of Texas in Austin, which was founded by the late Dr. John Slatin.

The University of Texas has decided to close the Accessibility Institute, which has been a guiding light in our field, giving important opportunity for research and providing useful resources to the world. It would be a real blow to web accessibility to see it go.

If you care about web accessibility, please show your support by putting your name on the petition to save the Accessibility Institute that Knowbility have set up. It only takes a few seconds to do.

There are some great thoughts and comments from people who have signed the petition. Henny Swan has also given some reasons to keep the Institute going on her blog:

Reasons for saving the Accessibility Institute include:

  • Need for research based findings to support accessible design practice.
  • Opportunity for a world class institution like UT to serve as an example to other institutions.
  • Place where emerging practices can be tested and modelled.
  • Contributions to international body of knowledge on inclusion.
  • Maintain thought leadership in Texas, easily disseminated to state agencies that have accessibility mandates.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Extra special thanks if you have signed the petition.

Read more

Scripting Enabled: accessibility conference and hack day

Christian Heilmann is organising a combined conference and hack day around accessibility and interface hacking. Scripting Enabled is a free event in London on September 19th and 20th:

“The aim of the conference is to break down the barriers between disabled users and the social web as much as giving ethical hackers real world issues to solve. We talked about improving the accessibility of the web for a long time – let’s not wait, let’s make it happen. […]

“The first day is dedicated to getting real information about accessibility barriers of online systems and techniques to work around them. […]

“The second day is a development event where we will try to build solutions and alternative interfaces into existing systems that work around the issues we learned about on the first day.”

It’s a great idea and presents a good opportunity for designers and developers to learn more about accessibility, how it affects visitors and perhaps get some practical experience while helping real users to access to some popular web applications.

There are quite a few tickets available for the “fact finding” first day (60 at time of writing), but if you’re interested in the second day of hacking, the tickets are nearly all gone. I’ve already booked mine; perhaps I’ll see you there!


Christian has now announced the schedule for Scripting Enabled. The tickets for the second day (the hack day) have all gone now, but there are still tickets available for the day of talks on 19 September.

Poetry, punctuation, markup & screen readers

I’ve seen poetry markup discussed a couple of times lately, but it never seems to end in a definite conclusion. Most recently, it has been discussed on the Web Standards Group mailing list: Marking up poems.

For some, it is obvious that using a pre element around a poem is correct as it maintains spacing and shape. For others, the semantic richness of using more typical HTML elements, such as paragraphs, is the obvious choice.

Anyway, I’ve done some brief tests of poetry with screen readers to see how these two semantic constructs are handled.

Some options

Poems are typically broken up into blocks called stanzas, the paragraphs of poetry. So, in terms of typographic layout on the Web, paragraphs are probably what we’re dealing with here; specifically, paragraphs with single-line boundaries, the sort of layout we typically see browsers render by default.

I started out writing this thinking that paragraph and break elements were the answer, but layout and spacing are particularly important to poetry. Some poems have integral layout and deliberate spacing—lines with different amounts of indent, distinct overall shape—which should be maintained if possible. While we may be able to achieve the required results using CSS, would we be unnecessarily abstracting part of the content in doing so? In essence, a poem is pre-formatted text, so I can see why pre is a natural choice; even the W3C use a poem as an example of using pre.

Another option is to use a blockquote. While you may be quoting someone else’s work, what markup do you then use for your own poetry? There’s nothing wrong with using blockquote in this way, but it depends on the context of your writing.


First off, we don’t want to complicate things too much. There’s no grounds for developing poem-specific in HTML 5 and suchlike, and using overly-complicated HTML constructs to avoid the use of br elements is just plain silly in my opinion.

Paragraphs and line breaks make sense from a semantic point of view, but if we want to preserve spacing, do we really want to be mucking about with CSS to achieve specific effects? Does whitespace—beyond paragraph barriers, so indents and overall shape—really matter that much? Yes, I think it does.

By using pre elements for poems, we are able to preserve the author’s work more easily. However, with no paragraph elements available to us, we lose a bit of the semantic richness that HTML allows: Only a selection of inline elements are permitted inside a pre element, so you can’t validly put paragraph elements in there.

Still torn?

Let’s take off our semantic hats for a moment, depart from the debate a little and look at how screen readers handle things.

Picking a short section of a poem featuring lines with and without punctuation at their ends, I used the two markup methods discussed and ran recent versions of JAWS and Window-Eyes over them. I recorded the speech output, so you can hear the results for yourself if you really want to.

In summary, the speech output from the different markup methods sound pretty much the same. Judging by these brief tests, screen readers don’t seem to pay much attention to carriage returns, line feeds or HTML br elements when they speak. Lines of poems run together, but punctuation causes screen readers to pause or announce the mark, which is how it should behave in my opinion. I don’t know enough about the actual inner workings of screen readers to provide an authoritative answer for this, but how the stanzas of a poem are achieved through markup doesn’t seem to make any difference to how it is spoken by modern screen readers.

Being a standards-based kind of guy, when I started testing I did not expect screen readers to be able to navigate the contents of a pre in the same way it can a bunch of paragraphs. I had imagined long poems with little markup would be a bit of a hassle for screen reader users. I should know better.

Screen reader users can skip from one paragraph (or stanza) to the next (Control+Down Arrow in JAWS). I wasn’t sure this would be possible for content inside a pre. A quick test reminded me, as is the case with browsers, screen readers have had to deal with a lot of crap markup. Quite possibly with a helping hand from the browser, screen readers know what looks like a paragraph. So, within a pre element, a screen reader user can still navigate paragraphs, skip to the next line (Down Arrow in JAWS), etc.

What does it all mean, Jon?

It basically means that it doesn’t really matter which markup method you use for poetry when it comes to screen readers. There is something I’d like to address here though: Some people seem to think they need to put in special punctuation for screen readers; commas at the end of each line, for example.

Punctuation marks, being the signposts of the written word, guide us through bodies of text. When it comes to poetry, line breaks add extra guidance, but how they should be interpreted may be ambiguous. Should they incur a pause? I’m sure that people will read the same poem differently, perhaps putting a pause in where the author didn’t mean one to exist, thus altering the rhythm.

The thing is, the rhythm of a poem is at the artistic discretion of its author. You cannot go sticking commas into someone’s poem because you think there should be a pause at the end of a line, or at the end of every line. The line breaks in a poem aid the understanding of the poem; they often highlight rhyming in a poem and indicate rhythm. If we’re specifically concerned with how screen readers speak the lines of a poem, I don’t think we can realistically do any more than to let the author’s punctuation lead the way; and neither should we do any more than that.

So, with that out of the way, we’re just left with making a decision as to which method to use. This blog post is really just a long-winded way of saying that, fundamentally, I doubt it matters a great deal. If you want to preserve spacing and shape, it’s probably best to use pre, but otherwise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using p and br elements (and perhaps blockquote as well).

Accessible Ajax: OmniTI

Screenshot: the new OmniTI website

PHP all-stars, OmniTI, recently launched their web site; Jon Tan and I had the pleasure of aiding in its creation.

You can read more about the site’s development on Jon’s blog, starting out with evolving OmniTI’s brand with their team through to a review of the site’s build. Here I’m going to show you what we did to enhance the site with some JavaScript functionality and how we ensured that content updated using Ajax was as accessible as possible.

Progressive enhancement

Progressive enhancement firmly in mind, we wanted to provide users immediate access to some useful information, such as contact details and the search form. The JavaScript functionality is strictly separated from the structured content of the site into external files – no scripting in the markup.

The contact details and search form have dedicated pages on the site, which serve as fall-backs for cases where JavaScript is unavailable. When JavaScript is disabled, the search and contact links will take you to the respective pages. If JavaScript is enabled, it runs when the page loads and sets up everything that it needs for the added functionality.

We opted to use the jQuery JavaScript framework to implement these features. Using a framework allows you to quickly build prototype features and makes code easier to maintain in the long run. We specifically chose jQuery because it is fast and lightweight.

Sensible Ajax

The additional layers of markup for both the contact details and search layers are requested from the server using Ajax, which jQuery makes really easy. It’s common for such layers to be embedded in the page markup and hidden using CSS when the page loads. The information in these layers are for convenience and is available on other pages of the site, so it doesn’t need to be on every page. Using Ajax in this way also allows the markup for those layers to be easily maintain server-side.

Having requested the markup as necessary using Ajax, it may be tempting to inject the markup into the DOM straight away. If you do this and disable CSS, the markup will be visible at the top of each page, just as it would if you had embedded it in every page on the site. It just doesn’t need to be there. Instead, the markup is held in a JavaScript variable rather than injected into the page from the start. These layers are only added to the page when they are needed. This way, even if CSS is disabled, the content is only there when it needs to be and doesn’t interfere with the rest of the content.

The interface

When a visitor hits either the contact or search links at the top of every page, if JavaScript is enabled, the appropriate layer of information slides out from the top of the page. Hitting the close button or the link that activated the layer removes the layer from the DOM rather than simply hiding it with CSS. As a nice extra, hitting the contact link when the search layer is open will toggle between the two layers.

That’s all fine for the majority of users. Let’s make sure we think about other users who may have different, and diverse, needs.

A more accessible interface

Sighted users see the lovely jQuery slide down effect when they click one of the activating links; it grabs their attention and shows them that new information is on the screen. If you can’t see, you need different feedback to tell you what’s happened when you followed the link, otherwise you might think that nothing has happened.

For keyboard users, which includes most screen reader users, we need to give the added layer focus in some way. JavaScript to the rescue; we can move keyboard focus to a focusable element using some simple code. If we don’t do this, users will have to navigate a long way through the page to get to the place that the new layer has been added to the DOM. As you might imagine, few users will be patient enough to search around for the new information. In fact, they may not even know that new information is on the page.

Sometimes it will make sense to inject new information into the DOM just after the element that actions the addition. Doing so will help screen reader users to find the information because the very next thing they read is likely to be that new information. However, for the OmniTI site we wanted to add the new layers to the top of our page for visual effect. So, we need to tell JavaScript to focus on something appropriate within the new layer.

Using focus for feedback

We need to pick a focusable element in the new layer we’ve added to the page, i.e. a link or a form element. Conveniently – although, some might say by design – there are appropriate elements at the start of our new layers. In the search layer, it makes sense to focus on the search input of the form. In the contact layer, the first element is an email link, so we can put focus on that.

Keyboard focus can be brought about easily by calling focus() on the required element, so long as the element is focusable. For example, after injecting the layer, we can pick it out the target element and give it focus:


Ironing out some creases

During testing, the most prevalent screen reader software, JAWS, coped well when focusing on form elements. However, it doesn’t always seem to like focussing on links; the screen reader’s buffer (its copy of the page’s DOM) seems to get updated correctly, but its virtual cursor is not always moved when focus() is called in the JavaScript.

Where Ajax is involved, problems can occur when the screen reader updates its virtual buffer before the Ajax call is complete. The response to the Ajax call may result in a change in the browser, but that change is not passed on to the screen reader. As our Ajax calls are only executed when the script is initiated, that’s unlikely to be the case this time.

As a focusable element, the target link should be able to receive focus with no trouble, but in conjunction with injecting elements into the DOM, it doesn’t always work. However, there’s a fix.

Technically, setting a tabindex value of -1 on an element should allow any type of element to become focusable. (You can read more in Gez Lemon’s Making Ajax Work with Screen Readers.) Obviously, the link should be focusable anyway, but using JavaScript to set a tabindex value of -1 on our link before we give it focus results in more reliable behaviour from JAWS.

Update: I found out from Christian Heilmann that this is likely to be a symptom of Internet Explorer’s hasLayout issues, which should mean that it can be fixed by triggering hasLayout on the target element.

We’ve got one last problem to iron out. In some browsers, setting a tabindex value of less than zero will remove the element from the tab order of the page. Keyboard users will often make use of the Tab to navigate around the focusable elements of a page. The tab order is the sequence in which these elements are given focus as a user tabs around a page. As our link should be in that tab order by default, we’ve just removed it by messing with its tabindex. Setting the tabindex value to zero (and possibly blank, but I’d need to double check) will put the link back in its place in the tab order. I don’t recommend setting tabindex in markup, but if you happen to be doing so, you should set the tabindex back to its expected value.