But why is it so difficult to have textual alternatives to images ? Still need to know how to make a website…
In accessibility, you all know the need to provide an alternative to images. This is not enough to make an accessible website, but it’s the example that’s always comes back about. Because it’s the easiest one to understand and to explain.
As a reminder, the first criterion of accessibility —for years, whatever the normative reference in force— requires that each image be provided with an HTML attribute “alt”. It’s extremely simple. It’s so easy it makes developers giggle.
The second criterion concerns the content of this attribute, called the “textual alternative”, and the third criterion has to do with its relevance. It gets a bit complicated. It’s semantic. Developers laugh less now, because they are not that hot on semantics : it depends on what the rest of the page says ; they must read, understand (or ask authors). In short, as often in accessibility, technique counts, a lot, but not only.
Of the 133 criteria legally imposed in France, this first three, which are among the simplest, relative to the complexity of others, remain copiously abused by the Web. Why ?
Here is the reality I’m facing, as web accessibility trainer, in French way :
— Making our websites accessible is an obligation and a priority for us. We would like to obtain the accessibility certification label by the end of the year. So we need to train our teams to make rapid progress.
— Okay. Which profiles are affected ?
— Contributors, developers and especially project managers.
— Very good ! Training all stakeholders in the production chain is a very good approach. What are the specific needs for your web publications ?
— Learn how to make accessibles PDF.
— PDF files ? Ah. We’ll see what we can do. What else ?
— Emails ! How can we make emails accessible ? How to layout ? Because we often have responses like “this is illegible”…
— Emails… uh… OK, duly noted. And for your websites ?
— Let’s take an example : for textual alternatives to images…
— Oh yes ! We know how to do it ! They are already in Word. For people who are blind.
— Word ? Is this the name of your CMS ?
— No, come on : Microsoft Word, the word processing software !
— Oops ! If I understand correctly, you prepare your content in Word. How are they then put online ?
— We use several tools…
— CMS type ? With WYSIWYG editor ?
— Yes, among other things… Why ?
— The people who write in these tools impact the accessibility of the final site. Are these the “contributors” profiles you want to train ?
— Yes, but be careful, they don’t write. They just input it in the CMS. Everything is written before.
— Before ? What do you mean ?
— By our editors. In the communication department.
— Ah… In this case, more than the input operators, it would be better to train the “editors”, in short those who produce the contents.
— But why ?
— Let us take the example of image alternatives again : the one who writes it must know how to do it in a pertinent way, while the one who inputs it must make sure of its presence in the right place, in the alt attribute…
— Oh no, don’t say alt attribute in front of them ! Be careful not to scare them with code.
— Okay, duly noted. Training to be able to write and contribute in an accessible way. Without code.
— Yes. To make accessible Word documents. Don’t forget Excel, for the tables !
I have more than 15 years of web experience and I’m asked to doing… office work ? I would like it to be a joke, but no. They are committed to the accessibility of their office documents, Word, Excel and PDF. But as expert as I am, my domain is the Web and I’m incompetent for the office documents. And, let’s be honest : I’m not even interested. Powerfully not. It’s not my job. I try to ignore the insult and I go on.
— Uh… well. But these are office documents. Do you publish them online as is ?
— Only PDFs, but for the rest, no : they are internal documents.
— In this case, apart from the PDFs, it doesn’t affect the accessibility of your websites.
— But… alternatives to images ?
— Let’s summarize : the editor writes it, in Word, then the contributor inputs it in a CMS. But who has the responsibility to code it, in the alt attribute ? When does your content become web pages ? How are your websites made ?
— I don’t know… Is that important ?
— Yes, very. Most of the accessibility of a website depends on its manufacturing, i.e. its coding, say at about 60%. So I need to identify when and how web front development takes place and which people are involved in it. Because they must be trained. Essentially. Who is coding the HTML ? Are your developers…
— Oh no, we will not have to talk to them about HTML !
— Don’t they code in HTML ?
— No, they’re developers. We only want them to be trained in the RGAA (French accessibility reference).
— Precisely… this normative reference is very much expressed in HTML. It will be difficult to ignore it.
— I don’t understand…
— Websites are primarily made of HTML. Many accessibility issues are caused by bad coding. If you have the ambition to label your websites, it’s necessary to train your teams to produce accessible HTML, CSS and JS.
— But this is not the role of our developers !
— In this case you don’t need to train them to accessibility. But then, who produces HTML in your organization ?
— We don’t, our digital agency does. They provide the graphic mockup. In HTML format.
— Ah… uh… okay. And you don’t touch the HTML code ? Not at all ?
— No. Everything is done externally.
— And are your providers specialized in accessibility ?
— Not that I known…
— Are they expected to be trained ?
— Uh… no… why ?
— Because if you want your sites to be accessible, let alone labeled, they have to be manufactured in an accessible way, that is to entrust them to providers who are proficient in this. They must be trained. In priority.
— It will have to be done without. And for our training ?
— Well… that is to say… Training you to the accessibility of emails, PDFs and other office documents, has almost no impact on the accessibility of your websites. These training will not do much to achieve the goal you have set.
— Why ?
— Email, PDF, Word… this is not the Web ! The only thing that counts, in web accessibility, to take our example, is the content of the alt attribute, in the web page, the one that appears in the user’s browser. If you put it elsewhere, in Word or whatever, it will not work…
— But we will still get the certification label, right ?
One would need to know how to make a website first and foremost. Because the biggest difficulty in web accessibility is not accessibility itself, but the word “web”, which is abysmally misunderstood. This is the reality : those who are responsible for websites, sponsors, project managers, publishers… know only office documents and more specifically Microsoft as an unsurpassable horizon. They do everything with it. Everything. Including their websites.
I don’t know by what miracle, under these conditions, do their sites ever appear online. In fact, it’s a safe bet that nobody really knows. Here the Web is a hot potato that is passed from hand to hand by closing the eyes.
In the end, to prove that accessibility was considered, and to proudly display a certification label nevertheless, an “expert” will be called —because in the kingdom of bureaucrats, experts are kings— who will squint and end up listing all occurrences of missing alt attributes and recording them scrupulously, not in a bug tracking tool or any other tool suitable for development, but in a file, —you guessed it—, a Word or Excel file, pompously called “audit report”. If it’s not effective, at least it sounds serious.