Speech Ghetto

Public Accommodations

The Department of Justice is considering proposed revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in order to expand the requirement for web accessibility. This move will make it “clear to businesses, educators, and other public accommodations, that their websites must be accessible.” This will extend the legal basis to websites that operate as places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA. The way I read it, this is a really big advance. But wait, there’s more.


What I’m curious about in the same proposal is the following statement: “The Department intends to consider various alternatives for ensuring full access to websites of public accommodations and will solicit public comment addressing these alternatives.” It reminds me of the text ghetto.

Text Ghetto

In 1999 when I started to make pasadena.edu accessible there was a pervasive and pernicious idea that there would be a text-only equivalent for each page. Who would update the text-only pages? No one. It would soon be a run-down neighborhood. I called this the text ghetto. My team ignored this idea and set out to make every page accessible. When I started to make csun.edu accessible in 2005 there was a copy of LIFT Text Encoder running. LIFT was a scheme users could invoke to render a web page as text-only. This was an advance I suppose: a semi-automated text ghetto. Incredibly, Pratik Patel @ppatel just yesterday told me that right now, in 2013, delta.com has a text ghetto. Bad ideas never die.

Text to Speech

iWebReader and BrowseAloud are two Text To Speech products that can be used to hear text read aloud from a web page. iWebReader uses the elegant Ivona Text to Speech engine and great voices. There are even Icelandic voices. BrowseAloud relies on a plain machine voice. Both have server-side elements. BrowseAloud has a client, but the client requires a page enabled with the server-side element. I did some brief exploring and iWebReader seems very advanced, even to the point of providing table construction information so it can read tabular data correctly. BrowseAloud failed to read a table on it’s own site. Both of these products are useful. Neither are full-scale accessibility solutions.

Speech Ghetto

Invoking such a solution and calling a site accessible does not make it so. The iWebReader table tutorial tells us that some effort still must be made to code accessibly so the page – wait for it – can be successfully read by a machine. Remind you of anything? Most users will not benefit if the site is inaccessible and only this new improved speech ghetto is provided. Is this what is meant by “consider various alternatives?” How many other such schemes are out there? The good is often the enemy of the best.


On February 12 in an advertisement/article called “Universal Accessibility: A New Conversation About Web Accessibility” via @HuffPostUKTech, the author who is the Communications Manager for another text to speech product “Recite” said: “There are innovative, award winning, web products, like Recite, which read websites and online documents out loud, and include numerous features which fix the internet for anyone who currently struggles online.” I rest my case.


CSUN 2011

I attended the following panel discussion at the 26th annual International Technology and Persons With Disabilities Conference, at 3:10 PM, Thursday, March 17, 2011:

Do We Need to Change the Web Accessibility Game Plan?

This panel was a discussion of current web accessibility efforts, whether they were effective or not, and how they could be improved, and was presented by:

Jennison Asuncion, @Jennison
John Foliot, @JohnFoliot
Jared Smith, @jared_w_smith
Sandi Wassmer, @SandiWassmer

The word “tribe” was used to describe the people working in accessibility around the world. That wasn’t the first time, but during that discussion I think we really owned it. We were the tribe. And the tribe wasn’t satisfied with the current mode we were in. We noticed that we gathered together almost exclusively at accessibility conferences and talked accessibility with each other. Preaching to the choir wasn’t working. We had to branch out.

Branching Out

Presaging this group revelation was Glenda Watson Hyatt’s @GlendaWH glorious standing ovation at SXSW a few days before for her presentation “Is Your Site POUR?” Those who were there say it was a life-changing experience. Branching out was already working for the tribe. Many more of us have branched out since.

This year I started a Meetup here in Silicon Beach, the Los Angeles Accessibility and Inclusive Design Group modeled after Lisa Herrod’s group in Sydney and Jennison Asuncion and George Zamfir’s Toronto groups. I also started Cities.

No Matter What

The tribe sticks together. 24 hours ago I saw a Tweet by Sarah Bourne ‏@sarahebourne “When the phone rings at this hour, it’s not good. My mom died.” Within minutes she was getting messages of sympathy from tribe members. Lots of them. When a tribe member is in trouble we gather together.

And when a tribe member makes good, we make a big deal of it. When I retired from CSUN earlier this year I was inundated with good wishes. Earlier today @Jennison Tweeted: “I am honoured and humbled to have been recognized today with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.” I think Jennison is still getting congratulatory Tweets.


Also in the last 24 hours as we led up to the US Senate vote on the UN Convention on the Rights with Persons of Disabilities there were many posts and Tweets from tribe members. I don’t know if Bill Shackleton ‏@CRPDisabilities counts himself a tribe member, but I think he should. His tireless work live-Tweeting debate, making resources available, urging us all on, is remarkable. This type of giving, without reservation, and without personal gain is the epitome of what being an accessibility tribe member is all about. Three cheers to the tribe!