DITA XML and Accessibility: An Interview with Robert Johnson II
A 10 minute read written by keith May 15, 2014
Share this post on
Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), which is designed to promote greater awareness of accessibility issues and the ways that we can help improve how we deliver digital content for those who require it. Accessibility has long been of interest to me and I advocate it not just because it is often a requirement, but because it leads to better content for everyone.
When I was at the recent Content Management Strategies/DITA North America 2014 conference held in Seattle, I attended a talk by Robert Johnson II (@cliostechscribe) called "From DITA to Accessible HTML". In order to help promote awareness of accessibility issues and how it relates to DITA XML, Robert Johnson II kindly agreed to an interview at short notice in time for GAAD.
DITAWriter: Can you tell me about your role at Oracle, and why your interest in accessible content?
Robert Johnson II: When I was at Oracle (I just joined a medical device company to guide their migration to DITA), I was a Senior Technical Writer for Endeca Information Discovery, an agile business intelligence product. In addition to my writing responsibilities, I had secondary responsibilities for accessibility, tools and technologies, and coordinating our DITA practices.
I started shortly after Endeca was acquired by Oracle. One of Oracle's requirements after the acquisition was that we implement accessibility for our products and our documentation. I had become familiar with accessibility earlier in my career, so I agreed to accept the responsibility for implementing accessibility in our documentation.
I also have a personal interest in accessibility. My mother is blind due to diabetes. My uncle experiences tinnitus (ringing in the ears) severe enough that he was ineligible for service during the Vietnam era. Both my son and my daughter have ADD, and my son has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. One of my daughter's closest friends in school has cerebral palsy. And my wife is a special education teacher.
DITAWriter.com: So why is accessible content important?
Robert Johnson II: When I described the people in my life with disabilities earlier, the point was not to overshare. Almost everyone reading this knows someone with a disability, whether visual (such as blindness or colorblindness), auditory (deafness or milder hearing loss), motor ability (multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, ALS), or neurological. In fact, most of us know several people with disabilities.
Moreover, anyone can be temporarily or situationally disabled. Someone that has broken their arm is temporarily disabled. Or think of trying to check your voice mail in a loud, crowded bar. In that situation, your voice mail is functionally inaccessible. As we grow older, the likelihood that we will experience some form of functional disability increases significantly.
If your company does business with the government, you have another good reason to make your content accessible: government procurement laws prefer accessible products. At the U.S. Federal level, this is covered under Section 508. If you are trying to sell a product that is not accessible, and your competitor's product is accessible, the government must purchase the competitor's product, even if your product meets or exceeds all other requirements. Similar regulations also exist at the state and local levels. Some overseas governments are even stricter; in those places, accessibility is not a preference, it is a requirement.
In the end though, offering accessible content is simply the right thing to do.
DITAWriter: What are the resources those working with DITA ought to know about regarding accessibility?
DITAWriter: One of WCAG's guidelines says that content should be "perceivable". How does this apply to DITA HTML output?
Robert Johnson II: The first thing that comes to mind when you think about ensuring that content is perceivable is that you need to provide text alternatives to non-text content, such as images. HTML provides an alt attribute on the element. For example:
Assistive technology uses the alt attribute to communicate about the image to the user. A screenreader, for example, reads aloud the value of the alt attribute.
DITA originally provided an exact parallel to the alt attribute in the element:
DITA 1.2 introduced an child element for the element.
A typical whifflejangle"
This option is preferred over the original implementation as individual tags are easier to access than attributes are for machine translation. The original implementation is deprecated.
It is important to ensure that the value of the </code>is meaningful. A single word usually isn't enough. Just using "Whifflejangle" doesn't convey a lot of information. Adding one or two works may be enough to convey additional meaning; for example "Whifflejangle dialog" or "A typical Whifflejangle". Longer text may be appropriate (for example "Whifflejangle dialog showing configuration to produce a port lee scupper"), but don't go overboard. If you need more than a sentence or two, put the description in the running text. It usually considered acceptable in that case to reference the running text in the </code>.</p>
Other non-text content that needs text alternatives are embedded objects such as video, audio, or PDFs. In HTML, the body of the object should contain text content, which will be used by the assistive technology.