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Dr. Esmond Walshe: Prescription for Accessibility


Esmond WalsheDr. Esmond Walshe is a member of the IBM WebSphere portal team in the Ireland Lab. He works on the WebSphere portal solution installer framework, which enables customers to develop installation solutions for WebSphere Portal and Application Server and he has a background in Java development and in software accessibility mainly focusing on applications for the web.

Esmond has vested interest in making software accessible because he is a blind software developer and computer user. "Before joining IBM, I was a member of the EAccessibility research group in Dublin City University (DCU) where I obtained a Doctorate in Computing and Engineering. The area of research for my thesis was non-visual access to web-based documents. The research experimented with presenting different views of the content based on document structures in the hope of alleviating the issues posed by the serial nature of speech technology."

The good doctor has given us the following prescription for creating accessible web applications:

The first thing I recommend is to plan for accessibility inclusion early in the project development cycle. Decisions you make at this stage, whether it concerns UI design or the toolkit you use to create the interface, can seriously influence how easy it will be to make your application accessible. Just a few simple steps at the beginning of the project can open up the web application to a person dependent on a screen reader without compromising the overall look and feel of the application.

More specifically, Dr. Walshe says to:

  1. Use markup elements for their intended purpose. For example, when creating HTML content, use <h*> elements to mark up any header information instead of using larger font sizes and/or highlighting the text. This will allow a screen reader user to use the navigation features that are built in to most modern screen reader technologies to move based on specific HTML elements. If you would prefer that the elements are presented in a different way than their default browser rendering, their appearance can be easily altered using cascading style sheets (CSS).
  2. Try to separate presentation from the content; that is, using cascading style sheets to apply styling to content rather than specifying such requirements directly in the content. By using this approach, alternative style sheets can be provided, making it easier to facilitate people who cannot see specific colors, or those who need greater contrast between colors to be able to read the content.  This can also help people with low vision because a style sheet with larger fonts can also be included by the developer.
  3. If you are creating Web 2.0 applications use the WAI-ARIA (accessible rich internet applications) suite of technical documents to mark up the interface. This is a powerful way to markup dynamically updating content so that a screen reader user can be informed of any updates. The latest screen reader applications and the Mozilla FireFox browser now support this standard.
  4. For all the steps that you need to take to make your website truly accessible see the Human Ability and Accessibility Center website.

One last piece of advice - Esmond says, "I have experienced firsthand the issues faced by people with a disability when accessing inaccessible software. By keeping these factors in mind, developers will be giving me and many others the opportunity to use their applications."

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