Pragmatica11y: Perception is everything

PragmaticallyBack when I was a student in classic literature and creative writing some 20 years ago, one of our teachers showed how perception is often more important than the message we mean to convey. On the very first day, as we entered the room, seven words were written on the blackboard:

“A woman without her man is nothing.”

The teacher was standing in the front of the class, analyzing the look on our faces. The girls were visibly annoyed, and the guys, chuckling silently, knew it was in their best interest to shut up.

The teacher’s first words were about how perception was really the most important factor in communicating ideas. As he said this, he turned to the blackboard and played around with the punctuation of the deliberately offensive sentence that was written.

“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

And the point was made. Punctuation is like people’s perception. A minor change can make a big difference in how a message is received and understood. Context changes the experience. Context can substantially alter one’s perception and the same is true when we think about the Web. For people with disabilities, even the smallest changes can make all the difference between being able to perceive the content or not.

The “Perceivable” principle in WCAG 2.0 is defined as “information and user interface components being presentable to users in ways they can perceive”. In other words, users need to be able to perceive the contents and features a site offers, no matter what their reality or context happens to be.

97858251This obviously means different challenges if the user is blind and can’t use a mouse, if the user is deaf and can’t listen to audio content or if the user has difficulties reading and writing and can’t easily process written content. Different realities call for different adaptations while consuming and interacting with the content.

The meaning of this principle is perhaps a little too simple for its own good, which may be why some people never seem to really “get” accessibility, even after having read the guidelines. Instead of looking at WCAG 2.0 holistically, a lot of people tend to surgically dissect the Success Criteria one by one, in the hopes of finding the true meaning of Web accessibility.

While there is value in doing that, I believe that this is the way to become a “checklist monkey” – someone who cares more about ticking items off a list rather than actually creating a better, more inclusive user experience for all end users.

Rather than looking at the 22 Success Criteria organized under Perceivable, I say we look at the intentions and what they imply. Determined through the guidelines, these intentions represent meaningful statements. How many people ever gave the guidelines and principles (the “why”) more than a few minutes worth of thought before jumping to the techniques and Success Criteria (the “how”)?

By building a solid understanding of those guidelines and conveying that understanding to the developers and designers, we could improve the general level of acceptance and buy-in towards accessibility. By analyzing the intent behind each of the Success Criteria for a specific guideline, a lot of understanding can be built about what the principle actually means. In other words, creating perceivable content should only come down to the following four core rules.

How to make content perceivable

  • Make sure visual contents such as images and graphics come with alternate text-based descriptions that can be reliably conveyed and interpreted by assistive technologies such as screen readers.
  • Make sure audio and video contents are accompanied by accessible text-based alternatives such as text transcripts, captions, and/or audio descriptions.
  • Make sure content is marked in such a way that the underlying structure can be conveyed to assistive technologies such as screen readers.  Make sure that the reading order of the content makes sense to all users, including those who rely on assistive technologies, and that information provided in content does not rely exclusively on the end user’s ability to identify or locate something on the screen.
  • Make sure color is not the only way to convey information, that color and audio contrasts are clearly distinguishable, that information is presented in a way that facilitates reading, and that readability remains optimal when content is zoomed.

Simply being aware of these core rules will help any developer or designer create user experiences that are more accessible. Will they need to dig deeper in order to really understand the how? Of course. But do they need to start by analyzing Success Criteria and techniques in order to understand what the end goal is? Absolutely not.

If developers and designers were taught to think about these general concepts when building Web content, the core values of accessibility would be better understood and incidentally, implemented on a daily basis. If we mean to truly engage developers and designers in the wonderful world of Web accessibility, I encourage us to entice them with the creative process rather than turn them off with the dry normative of the Success Criteria and techniques.

And just like what I experienced in that classroom 20 years ago, they will soon come to understand that there are always more ways to perceive content than they initially thought.  Getting them to understand this – the why – is half the battle.

Denis Boudreau

Denis is a Web accessibility consultant working for Deque Systems from Montreal, Canada. He has been helping organizations of all sizes build a better, more accessible Web for everyone since 2000. Pragmatica11y will be posting on the first Tuesday of every month.  

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