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Ten questions for Steve Faulkner

28-July-06

Steve Faulkner

Steve has many years experience as a web developer and accessibility consultant. As well as his ongoing consulting work, he presents & runs workshops at conferences, and guest lectures at universities on the practical implementation of web accessibility. He is also leading the development of Web Accessibility testing software in collaboration with organizations and individuals from around the world.

[1] Russ: How did you get into the field of accessibility? Was this suggested by your careers adviser at school?

Steve: My school didn't have career advisers, it had parole officers.

After I finished uni, I worked in welfare and for NGO's (Greenpeace, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [CND]). I then got into web development (thanks to my big bro') at a time when if you could spell HTML you could get a job, and worked for several years in the UK for web design agencies. When I returned to Australia in 2000, I applied for a job with vision australia, the job interested me because it combined my more recent IT based work with my earlier social work. So I started work as a web developer and apprentice web accessibility consultant under the tutelage of Andrew Arch and Brian Hardy. Initially I knew little about web accessibility; I had heard of Bobby, but was generally ignorant of such matters (including web standards). The first week at work they put a copy of WAG 1.0 in front of me and said, "read it"; I am still reading it today...

[2] Russ: You are most widely known for your amazing Web Accessibility Toolbar (WAT). How did the toolbar come about?

Andrew, Sofia Celic and I had been using JavaScript bookmarklets to aid in manual testing of web pages, I started to hack some of them so they would show more specific accessibility related information. I also came across the PNH toolbar and hit on the idea of doing something similar focusing on web accessibility and also something that worked with IE, as it was/is the standard browser in our testing environment. So I cobbled together the first version of the web accessibility toolbar with mangled, modified, begged and borrowed code.

[3] Russ: What were the biggest hurdles you faced while developing of the toolbar?

The biggest hurdle was and is that I am a crappy programmer; yes I can put together some simple JavaScript code, but beyond that I am pretty much out of my depth. Luckily the initial release of the WAT generated interest from people around the world who contacted me and offered to help develop and translate the WAT. One of them was a guy from Japan known only as Jun (he shies away from publicity). Jun developed a new backend (DLL) for the WAT and added a lot of features that I desired but could not develop myself. Jun and I continue to collaborate on the WAT and other projects (including the Colour Contrast Analyser), his contribution to the WAT development has been invaluable.

I would also like to mention a few other people who have helped me overcome any hurdles related to the WAT and other projects: my colleague and friend Sofia Celic, Brian and Andrew, Gez Lemon, Mike Paciello, Makoto Ueki and Norio Minato, Roberto Castaldo & Roberto Scano, Mauricio Samy Silva, Alan Chuter, Sylvie Duchateau, Jim Tobias, Walter Keissl, Jim Thatcher, Donna Smillie and many others... (full list available on request)

[4] Russ: You are a founder member of the Web Accessibility Tools Consortium. What are the aims of this group?

We formed to develop and promote free web accessibility testing tools. We also want to promote the localisation of the tools. We have already worked with many organisations and individuals to develop localised version of our tools. The latest developments include:

We have been contacted by a number of people/organisations about including their tools in the WAT-C and are currently working on expanding the range of tools we develop and promote.

[5] Russ: Following on from this, you are very interested in collaboration with other developers in the area of accessibility - especially in the international community. Why do you think this is important?

Through my work on the WAT I have come into contact and learned a lot from a diverse group of people (luckily for me, most of whom could speak at least a little English) I myself have some understanding, but there is a wealth of knowledge out there that I do not have, but can leverage through collaboration. As the web is a truly international medium that crosses geographical and cultural boundaries, it is logical and desirable to pool limited resources and share knowledge in an attempt to reach a common goal (i.e. an accessible web).

[6] Russ: OK, let's talk AJAX. Why is it important to inform assistive technology users that an AJAX-style change has taken place to the pages content? Does this have something to do with those dreaded snapshots and virtual buffers?

One of the main issues is that screen reader users don't know when HTML content is updated via scripting, even when the update is triggered through a user action. Current methods to enable the reporting of content changes are somewhat inadequate. This is due (I think) to the lack of understanding by the web accessibility community of how screen reading software presents HTML content (in particular) to users and the lack of support built in to screen reading software for dynamic content changes in HTML content.

Another important issue is that when content changes occur, which do not involve a page refresh, the updated content is not always available to users even though it appears in the browser. An understanding of the "virtual buffer" is critical to the understanding of why content changes are sometimes available to users and at other times not.

Recently Gez (lemon) and I have been collaborating on research and testing, attempting to fill the void of knowledge on how screen readers allow users to interact with web content, and from this work have proposed methods by which screen reader users can be notified of changes to content. This work is by no means complete.

[7] Russ: You seem to have a problem with the title attribute. Were you attacked by a title attribute as a child?

I don't have a problem with the title attribute; in fact it is one of my favourite attributes. What I have a problem with is the lack of keyboard support for accessing the title attribute content, and the flaky implementation of mouse access to its content in browsers (Including the exalted Firefox). I also have a problem with the misguided advice given on its use by people who should know better and its promotion as an aid to accessibility, when due to its present support in browsers, it can actually add to making content less accessible. (Note: I am talking here about its use on links, not its use on form controls, where its correct use can be worthwhile). rant , rant rave..

[8] Russ: Your AJAX and Title attributes articles have been very beneficial to the community. Do you think that doing practical testing was an important part of the process?

Practical testing is of utmost importance; the more rigorous the better, it takes time and effort and is boring to do, but without it, the findings and conclusions are likely to be incorrect, and such misinformation is then used to inform the work of other people, and so it goes on...

It is also important, because then others can test what you have tested and if they produce differing results, there is a legitimate basis for challenging earlier findings. Rather than the argument being based on "expert opinion" or who can shout the loudest, it can be based on something more solid.

[9] Russ: WCAG2 has been receiving a lot of flack from the broader community at present. Do you think this is justified? Are you concerned with the direction it is heading?

I will start by saying that the WCAG working group has done a lot of hard work on the new guidelines. It is easy to criticise the results, but try spending many hours each week voluntarily working on the guidelines and getting up at 5 am to attend the teleconferences, that can last many hours. (Based on my vicarious experience from Sofia's involvement with the WCAG WG).

I also think that while there are a lot of issues with WCAG 2.0 in its current form. I consider the "last call" and associated public comments to have been a constructive and hopefully productive process and the "flack" has been an important part of that. I will continue to follow the process with interest and contribute through the appropriate channels, as I think it is of great importance that something worthwhile comes out at the other end.

[10] Russ: Finally, what's next? Are you working on any exciting projects now or in the near future?

I am leaving vision australia and Australia in August. I am moving to the UK and will start work for The Paciello Group (TPG). I will be working alongside Gez, which I am really looking forward to. The first in a series of articles on screen reader support for Javascript events has just been published and I have to get cracking on the next instalment. Now that the WAT for Opera is out of the way, I will pick up work on the WAT for Firefox. Following on from the work on the "barre AccessiWeb" I am hoping to be involved in the development of tools supporting UWEM (A Unified Web Evaluation Methodology to evaluate web accessibility across Europe). I am also eager to attend the next London WSG meet.

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Steve: You're welcome. It was a pleasure

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