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The excellent Jim Thatcher – who developed one of the first screen readers – has redesigned his site, and in his accessibility statement he writes,
This site uses CSS for layout, not tables. I do not think that that is essential for accessibility at all. Recently I believe I have seen more questionable situations with reading order stemming from CSS based layouts than ever from table based layouts.
This chimes in with some questions I’ve been asking myself lately and, as it’s Philosophy Friday today, I’ll pose the question: how inextricably linked are standards and accessibility?
Orthodoxy has it that seperation of structure and presentation via css and valid (x)html de facto enhances accessibility. Almost any article you read on why css is the way to style sites claims enhanced accessibility as a by-product. And this has been a useful orthodoxy; designers have been encouraged to move to css partly through the righteous side-effect that designs will become more accessible. That’s given the cause of accessibility a tremendous boost, if only because people will have heard about it.
Conversely, accessibility types have taken a cue from the design world and started to make their pages less ugly and clunky. Gawds may not be beautiful, but it’s better than useit, for example.
One thing that is certain is that accessibility is enhanced by structure. For example, one of the simplest JAWS keyboard commands is the H key, which jumps to the next heading in a document (be it <h1>, <h2>, whatever). Insert-F6 calls up a dialogue box listing all headers, so a blind user can quickly “see” what’s on the page. So, if you look at a well marked-up page (I’m choosing zeldman.com, as he’s the man who showed me The Light, but could just as easily cite Matt Machell‘s ongoing redesigns for the University of Central England), you’ll see that a Jaws user could quickly and easily identify the story headers, jump between them until they found something they wanted to read.
A badly marked-up document, conversely, offers no such structural clues as it simply has no real structure, only visual indications of what’s a “heading”. But Zeldman or Matt could certainly lay out their sites using nested tables, and still maintain the structured headings, if they so chose.
So does Accessibility require xhtml/ css web “standards”? The wierd and not terribly wonderful WAI/ WCAG guidelines say, “Use markup and style sheets and do so properly .. Using markup improperly — not according to specification — hinders accessibility”. That might be orthodoxy, but is that true?
Personally, I try to use them properly (what does “properly” mean?). Joe Clark has established from screen reader manufacturers that screenreaders like valid code. You can still follow the diktat to “Use W3C technologies .. and use the latest versions”: by using xhtml 1.0 transitional you can lay everything out in tables, and as long as they linerarise OK, that’s accessible.
Certainly, a lot of organisations that agitate for accessibility use tables for layout – see The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the UK’s Disability Rights Commission. They’re all good, campaigning organisations who were advancing the cause of web accessibility while I was still in short trousers. But are they wrong?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. Is their accessibility hindered by their not using “web standards”? Presumably not, or they’d have big trouble with their core audience.
So if presentational layouts are not an impediment to accessibility, why are they prohibited in the WAI/ WCAG guidelines?
My preference is for valid xhtml/ css for layout as a starting point for accessibility. Many other people say the same (as a follower rather than a leader, that’s where I’ve got my information from). But is that just my preference or do standards and accessibility really sit in a tree, k.i.double-s.i.n.g.?