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Is Your Web Site More Accessible Than Birmingham?

I reckon I've discovered a major problem with Sat-Nav devices. They don't work very well when someone has completely reconfigured the one-way system since the maps were created. Replacing some of the main routes with large holes in the ground doesn't seem to help either. And, strangely enough, resorting to a street atlas printed about the same time as the Sat-Nav map survey doesn't produce any better result.

I made these startling discoveries during a recent trip to the wonderful English "second city" of Brum (Birmingham). I was supposed to be presenting a session to a local user group that evening, and so - as I like to have plenty of time to get parked up and settled in for these kinds of events - I set off from home at 2:00 PM for a 6:30 PM session. By 3:30 PM I was in nose-to-tail traffic on the slip-road (off-ramp) of the main Aston Expressway at the Queensway roundabout. The fact that it took nearly forty minutes to get to the top of the slip road and onto Colmore Row should have been a suitable warning, but I'm made of stern stuff so I pressed onwards. At 7:15 PM I was still sitting in traffic in the middle of Brum, with a blinding headache and no nearer to my destination than four hours earlier.

I used to know Brum quite well. Though I'm not actually a "Midlander", I spent many holidays as a young boy in the vicinity. My grandfather and my uncle worked on the railways there, and I became quite an expert shunter driver and tea maker. Several of us lads even used to go by train - often free and in the cab - to New Street or Snow Hill station for an afternoon train-spotting (see, I really am a geek), and wander around the city centre at the same time. And, in my previous job, I travelled into Brum regularly to visit customers, so I reckoned I knew it fairly well.

Mind you, that was a few years ago now, and the city has changed dramatically since then. But I've never seen anything like the mess they seem to have made of it recently. It looks like they're building a whole heap of new shopping centre/office blocks/car parks, with the result that many of the usual routes now end abruptly in a wire fence and a fifty-foot deep hole. To keep public transport running, they then decided to make some of the remaining routes "buses-only". Finally, they nailed nice shiny new "No-Entry" signs to about three quarters of the remaining streets.

In fact it is so bad that, at one stage, I found myself at a crossroads where all three of the roads were no-entry (well, two were no-entry with the other blocked by a "Road Closed" sign). Even a traffic warden I asked for help said I "had almost no chance of getting near Corporation Street" - my destination - without walking the last half a mile. Mind you, at one point I did find myself in Corporation Street, the wrong end of course, and actually found a parking space. The guy in the coffee shop I popped into was even good enough to give me walking directions to the other end of the street.

I assumed these directions would involve something like "go out of the door, turn left, and keep going straight...", but in fact turned out to be a stream of so many lefts, rights, and straight-overs that I was lost halfway through. It seems they've dug the middle up, and so I have to go via the park and the cathedral (perhaps stopping for spiritual as well as directional guidance) to get to the other end. No wonder the Sat-Nav was having problems.

Back in the car, another excruciatingly slow circuit of the city centre with the nice Sat-Nav lady telling me to go left when the only legal option was right, or right where there wasn't a road any more. And this is using the latest 2006 maps. Finally, in desperation, I pulled into a small underground car park within about half a mile off my target - only to discover, after I'd parked up, that they closed at 7:00 PM! At that point, I decided that Brum was no longer somewhere I wanted to be, and came home...

Anyway, the session I was due to present was about Web Accessibility Issues for Disabled Visitors; in particular how ASP.NET can help you to create more accessible sites, and some of the common problems that are easy to overcome once you appreciate the need to do so. Coincidently, I attended an excellent conference at Microsoft's UK HQ in Reading on the following Saturday, which included a great session from an old Wrox colleague and friend Bruce Lawson. Bruce is a member of the Web Standards Projectís Accessibility Task Force, with a firm belief that the Web should be available to all. His presentation was highly entertaining, yet really made the attendees think about the issues.

Maybe it's because I tend to turn off most of the fancy features in my browser, such as ActiveX controls, Java applets, and occasionally even script when its effects annoy me enough, that I see how many sites are easily broken when employing such non-standard browsing techniques. In fact, I've been a strong advocate of accessibility for a long time, and have written on the topic regularly in books and articles. What surprised me was that, although most people attending the session were aware of the common things such as using the alt attribute on images, very few (if any) seemed to be aware of what ASP.NET 2.0 brings to the party.

I was fortunate (and proud) some years ago to be part of a group that was able to influence the features of ASP.NET 2.0 at design meetings held during its development, and the one thing I shouted about most of all was the need for better accessibility support. ASP.NET tries hard to provide this. However, you still need to be aware of issues that arise when the target user agent (such as a Braille or aural page reader) does not support client-side script. Simply putting a submit button inside a <noscript> element and adding some suitable server-side code can solve many issues when auto-postback (which depends on client-side script) doesn't work. And remember that AlternateText="" will not create an empty alt attribute (alt="") for an ASP.NET server control - you have to set the GenerateEmptyAlternateText property instead.

And what about accessibility with AJAX? It seems from the opinions I've gathered over the last few months that the jury is still out on this one. The W3C has proposals in the pipeline, and the various AJAX framework suppliers (including Microsoft) have plans for improving accessibility as well. However, until accessible user agents such as page readers catch up, I can see this is going to be a big "gotcha" for many people. The special devices and software used by disabled (especially visually impaired) visitors is expensive, and hardly ever cutting edge. For example, on my demo machine where I run IBM Home Page Reader (HPR), I can't upgrade to Internet Explorer 7 because I'm told by the IBM support people that it will break HPR.

And then there's all the wonderful new WPF/E stuff coming along, with its amazing graphical imagery capabilities for creating pages and sites that are hard for even a sighted person to navigate! Maybe our Chancellor of the Exchequer won't have to introduce many more stealth taxes, as he'll be earning a fortune from the fines levied on all the companies and organizations for having non-accessible Web sites...

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