Flashy Accessibility

I attended two of Macromedia’s seminars over the last couple of days.

Yesterday was the unveiling of Flash MX. It certainly looks like it has a lot of improvements over version five. The ability to stream video (and treat it like any other movie clip) directly from Flash is probably the feature that’s going to generate the most excitement amongst developers.

Personally, I was far more more interested in the accessibility advances that Flash has made. Movie clips can be given descriptive text that screen readers will be able to read (although search engines won’t). It’s also possible to insert named anchors into movie timelines that are treated just like pages in the browser’s history list.

Interesting as the unveiling of Flash MX was, today’s seminar on accessibility was, to my mind, far more interesting.

Julie Howell of the Royal National Institute for the Blind gave a great talk outlining why accessibility matters.

One of the most interesting points she made (and it’s something I’ve been saying for some time) is that accessible sites don’t need to be boring. In fact, they shouldn’t be.

As she pointed out, people with visual or any kind of disability want to have the same kind of rich, immersive experiences as the rest of us. Like anybody else, they like to visit beautiful websites and play games online - not just find information.

In fact, I believe that Jakob Nielsen and, to some extent, the W3C have done a great disservice to the cause of accessibility and usability by having such boring websites. The myth that accessible websites have to be boring is just that - a myth. But, looking at Nielsen’s site, it’s easy to see how the myth got started.

I don’t doubt for a minute that Macromedia are pushing the whole accessibility issue in order to make more money but, frankly, I don’t care. I’m happy to see the accessibility flag being flown by people who want to create cutting-edge sites.

Meanwhile, I’m going to endevour to do my bit down in the trenches. It isn’t always easy convincing clients (and indeed, fellow developers) of the need for accessible websites but today’s seminar on accessibility gave me some good ammunition.

The only slight sticking point for me was purely semantic. I didn’t mention it at the seminar but if I had I would have put on my best Simpson’s "comic book guy" voice:

There is no such thing as an "alt" tag - it’s an attribute.

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