Blue Hat for a Blue Day

Smiffy's Twitter avatar wearing a blue hat

Preamble

Today is the 30th November. This year (2009,) the 30th November marks the third annual Blue Beanie Day, raising awareness of web standards and accessibility. (For those unsure as to what a beanie is – as was I – it's what in my family used to be called a wooly hat; toque in French.)

Firstly, let's get the "why a blue beanie (or wooly hat)" issue out of the way. The reason is simple: the online avatar of Jeffrey Zeldman, co-founder of the Web Standards Project, publisher of A List Apart, is seen wearing – you've guessed it – a blue beanie (or toque.) Someone decided this would be a good way to make the avatars of web standards-supporting folk stand out. The rest is history.

When I posted a note on Twitter advising why my avatar had suddenly gained some blue stuff up top, it was pointed out to me that the link to the Web Standards Project page was "…less than exciting to casual visitor." (Thanks to @DrJaneLS.) Which was perfectly true. The page in question means everything to those of us already involved in web standards/accessibility, but very little to anyone else. Since it is the "anyone else" we are trying to reach, some further explanation is required, otherwise we are just wasting our time, preaching to the choir, as it were.

Web Standards, Web Accessiblity in a Very Small Nutshell

At risk of upsetting my peers with an over-simplistic explanation, I will now endeavour to explain web standards/accessibility and why they are important to everyone.

Web Standards

The heart of the modern web page is HTML – HyperText Markup Language. It's the language that defines the content and semantics of a web page. The presentation of modern web pages – what they look like – is determined by CSS – Cascading Style Sheets – another language.

When writing in any human language, we need to observe rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, semantic structure, etcetera – or we end up with an incomprehensible mess. Web standards is all about doing this with the languages used to create web pages.

If we don't stick to the rules when writing for the web, we may end up with a page that looks OK in one web browser (user agent, to use the technical term,) but not in another. But the implications go further than this, which leads me to web accessibility.

Web Accessibility

Whilst web standards may be regarded by some as technical niceties, web accessibility has a far more human face. It is, at the end of the day, all about people.

How do people use the web? If we assume that everyone has a desktop computer with a big colour monitor, keyboard, mouse, fast Internet connection, and design our content around this, we run the risk of excluding people who:

  • Are blind or have low vision
  • Cannot /do not use a keyboard
  • Cannot /do not use a mouse (possibly in combination with not being able to use a keyboard)
  • Have a slow Internet connection (includes so-called "mobile broadband")
  • Are using a tiny screen, such as on a smart-phone

This list is by far from being exhaustive. For further reading, I would suggest Introduction to Web Accessibility from the Web Access Initiative, the official body that creates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (and other related guidelines.)

People who fall into the first three categories on my list have technology solutions available to them, but these technologies rely on a certain quality of content to be able to do their job. [Note: I have written software that attempts to make sense of web content. Trying to get it to work with non-standards compliant content is highly frustrating to say the least.] Following web standards will not necessarily make content accessible – more work is required on the part of the content creator – but it's a very good start.

Conclusion

If we ignore web standards and accessibility, we run the risk excluding people from being able to make use of our content. Not only is this immoral (discriminatory,) but it makes poor business sense (excluding potential customers) and – in many jurisdictions – is illegal.

Support web standards and accessibility. If you don't create content yourself, you may have influence/responsibility over it. Make that content standards-compliant and accessible and you will be able to go home feeling that you have been socially inclusive, gained customers, and won't be seeing the wrong end of a discrimination suit.

What You Can Do

  • If you are a content creator, learn to write valid, semantic, markup. Learn about web accessibility techniques and apply them.
  • If you are having web content created, specify that it must be standards-compliant and that accessibility should be a primary design consideration, not an add-on. (If your contractor says "it doesn't matter," find someone else.)
  • Everybody: find out how people with disabilities use the web [try searching for screen reader video.] It can be quite a thought-provoking experience.
  • Spread the word!

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What, no Nick Heyward? No. I don't even like the song – I was just looking for a snappy tagline.