Tags: biene06

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The language of accessibility

While I was in Berlin for the BIENE awards, I found myself thinking a lot about language and meaning… as one does when one is in a foreign country.

First of all, I think I may have inadvertently insulted my fellow jury members, and just about everyone else I came into contact with, by continuously using the familiar, rather than the polite form. I never could figure out when to use “du” and when to use “sie”, so I’ve always just stuck with “du.”

Secondly, I was thinking about the German word being used to describe accessibility: “Barrierefreiheit”, literally “free from obstacles.” It’s a good word, but because it’s describes websites by what they don’t contain (obstacles), it leads to a different way of thinking about the topic.

In English, it’s relatively easy to qualify the word “accessible.” We can talk about sites being “quite accessible”, “fairly accessible”, or “very accessible”. But if you define accessibility as a lack of obstacles, then as long as a single obstacle remains in place it’s hard to use the word “barrierefrei” as an adjective. The term is too binary; black or white; yes or no.

Thinking further along these lines, I realised that English is not without its problems in this regard. Consider for a minute the term “making a website accessible.” There’s an implication there that accessibility is something that needs to be actively added, something that requires an expenditure of energy and therefore money.

The BIENE awards ceremony began with some words of wisdom from Johnny Haeusler, the German of equivalent of Jason Kottke and Tom Coates rolled into one:

In der realen Welt steht fast immer die Frage im Mittelpunkt, was wir tun müssen, um Menschen mit Behinderung zu integrieren. Im Internet müssen wir umdenken und fragen, was wir tun müssen, um niemanden auszuschließen – und dabei spielt die Barrierefreiheit eine zentrale Rolle.

In the real world, we’re almost always asking what we can do to include handicapped people. On the Internet, we need to rethink this question and ask what we can do so that we don’t shut anybody out—and accessibility plays a central role in that.

This highlights a really important point: good markup is accessible by default. As long as you’re using HTML elements in a semantically meaningful way—which you should be doing anyway, without even thinking about accessibility—then your documents will be accessible to begin with. It’s only through other additions—visual presentation, behaviour, etc.—that accessibility is removed.

Far from being something that is added to a site, accessibility is something we need to ensure isn’t removed. From that perspective, the phrase “making a site accessible” isn’t accurate.

Just as “progressive enhancement” sounds better than “graceful degradation”, talking about accessibility as something that needs to be added onto a website isn’t doing us any favours. Accessibility is not a plug-in. It’s not something that can be bolted onto a site after the fact. So here’s what I’m proposing:

From now on, instead of talking about making a site accessible, I’m going to talk about keeping a site accessible.

Join me.

Bienen fliegen

My brief excursion to Berlin is at an end and I’m back in Brighton.

The prize-giving ceremony for the BIENE accessibility awards went well. It was a very professional affair in nifty surroundings. Champagne, canapés and short films from the folks at Ehrensenf made for a most pleasant awards ceremony. After the ceremony itself, a plentiful supply of food, beer and music ensured that the whole evening was enjoyable.

The highly valued prizes went to some very deserving websites. I can vouch for the fact that the jury was pretty strict in its judgement. Even as the prizes were being handed out on stage, the sweet taste of victory was tempered by some words advising where improvements could still be made.

Most of the winners sported valid markup; usually XHTML Transitional, sometimes even XHTML Strict. Quite a lot of the sites offered text-resizing facilities, though I wonder if that’s something best left to user agents. Joe will pleased to note that many of the sites also offered zoom layouts.

The Pfizer website, winner of a golden Biene, includes a remarkable section that sets out to translate those bits of paper you get with your prescription into plain language… and sign language! The whole thing is done with Flash and it works wonderfully well with screenreaders. From a technical viewpoint, I’m really glad that I now have an example I can point to, should I ever find myself in one of those “Flash is inherently inaccessible” arguments.

I also felt that it was very important that the prize-winning websites should be well-crafted with strong visual design. The Barmer website is not only accessible, it looks good too. It’s extremely bulletproof with a semi-liquid layout. There’s more semi-liquid goodness to be had at the site of the Bundesrat—the federal council of Germany. I’m really impressed with the clarity and cleanliness of the design.

My personal favourite is the website of the Media Management department of the Wiesbaden Technical College. I like the nice clean design. They also offer material in plain language and sign language. It scales nicely, it’s usable and it’s accessible. But what impressed me most was the story behind the site.

The website was created by students. A small group put the whole thing together in three months. They did this as just 12.5% of their coursework, so there was a ton of other work they needed to attend to at the same time. Under the guidance of professor Stephan Schwarz, they learned about structuring documents with markup and styling with CSS. The end result is something that would put many “professional” agencies to shame. What a debut! An accessible, good-looking site from people who have learned Web design the right way, without ever having to nest a table.

I’m just blown away by their achievement. I requested, and was granted, the honour of awarding them their silver Biene on stage. That meant I had to speak German in front of a roomful of people (and television cameras) but I made it through without stumbling too much.

At South by Southwest earlier this year, Andys Budd and Clarke gave a talk on Web Design Superheroes. The students from Fachhochschule Wiesbaden are my heroes. If they represent the next generation of designers, the Web is in very good hands indeed.

Straight out of Wiesbaden

Hauptstadt

I lived in Germany for about five or six years in the nineties. In all that time, while I was ensconsed in the beautiful Black Forest town of Freiburg, I never once made it to the capital. Now I’m finally here.

I was invited to come to Berlin to be part of the jury for the highly-prized Biene awards. This is quite an honour. In the Biene awards, the emphasis is on accessibility and the criteria are really quite strict. It’s no cliché to say that just being nominated is quite an achievement.

One of the restictions on entries for the awards is that the site is primarily in German. I suspect that it’s my familiarity with the language that secured my place on the jury. The only problem is that I haven’t spoken German for six years.

Yesterday was judgment day. The jury gathered to debate and discuss the relative merits of the sites on offer. I had absolutely no problem understanding what everyone else was saying but as soon as I opened my mouth to add my opinion, I found that words and grammar were failing me at every turn. It was quite frustrating. I know if I was here for a few more days, it would all come back to me but having to dust down the German-speaking part of my brain after an interval of half a decade felt like quite a tough task.

I learned most of my German from sitting in pubs chatting with Germans, which is why I’m still fairly crap at reading and writing in the language. I usually find that my German improves greatly after one or two beers. Strangely though, after another three or four beers, I can’t understand a word anyone is saying. Komisch, nicht wahr?

The prize-giving ceremony will take place tonight. I can’t give away any of the results yet; that’s verboten. But I’ll definitely be blogging about some of the sites as soon as the pre-ceremony gag order is removed.

Until then, I have a few hours to explore Berlin. The good people from Aktion Mensch are putting me up at the ludicrously swanky Westin Grand, once the crown jewel of East Berlin. Its central locataion means that I’m just a short stroll away from the Brandenburg gate and plenty of other must-see attractions. Flickr demands pictorial evidence of such visual delights: I must obey.