For Fun And For Free

I am writing this on behalf of Accessible Twitter and Dennis Lembree.

In The Beginning

I was consulting at Cornell University in 1991 when I saw the first Web pages on a NeXT computer. The first pages were rather accessible but there wasn’t any assistive technology on the NeXT computer at that time. JAWS for DOS was originally released in 1989 by Ted Henter but as far as I know it never existed for NeXT.

Though Tim Berners-Lee is supposed to have said that he never intended for pictures to be displayed on the Web, in 1992 he apparently went out of his way to load this first Web picture.

Uploading that picture brought on the beginning of inaccessible Web design. People merrily went about “designing” pages filled with pictures with no alternative text. Pages with black backgrounds, yellow slanty text, and the tiled rings of Saturn. It was mostly academics, scientists, military people who had accounts. The Web grew out of their sensibilities.

A very common sensibility on the early Internet that carried over to the early Web was that it was for fun and for free. The people who regularly used the Internet back then might not have described their modality as for fun and for free but they sure lived it. I remember incendiary flame wars over the very mention of a commercial product in a Usenet newsgroup discussion. Contrast that with Blackboard claiming they own a patent to deliver courses over the Web. Sheesh.

Tim Berners-Lee himself did not patent the Web. While CERN was certainly a very serious enterprise, you could easily say that he gave the world the Web for fun and for free. Think about that for a second or two. This enormous economic development engine that is the Web was given to us for fun and for free. Wow!

Big AOL Bang

Now I come to the Big AOL Bang. When all those AOL pukes were set loose on the raw wild Internet in 1995 they destroyed it. They went right to GeoCities, also vintage 1995, and made pages that look like this.

Sorry Ms. Hagen. I do really love your music though. I even have your vinyl! Vinyl? Well, records used to be relea… Records? Well records were…

Alright, so that page isn’t on GeoCities… but it should be. And what’s up with 1995 anyway? OMG!

From the beginning of the Web I was called on to “make a Web page” for places I worked, or lived, or friends, or politicians, or artists. I made Web pages. I tried to make plain pages with logical navigation. I was admonished. The client wanted black backgrounds with yellow slanty text, animated gif sparkle ponies, and a picture of their cat. And that was for a course syllabus. Of course.

Section 508 Saves The Day

In the USA in August 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law tasking the General Services Administration with providing technical assistance concerning the requirements of the law. Accessibility was now mandated by law, and it was good. And order was imposed on the Web. NOT!

As recently as this past week, on July 29th, 2009, the NFB – National Federation of the Blind – gave the online retailer newegg.com some recognition. “The NFB’s Gold Level Certification is awarded in recognition of commitment and innovation to help ensure equal Web access to the visually impaired individuals.” The ironic thing is that I read the press release on a page without a skipnav or headings, with endless navigation and inline CSS; in short a rather inaccessible page.

Let’s review: 508 goes into effect 10 years ago. 10 years later, the NFB finds it necessary to note that an online retailer is doing something about accessibility. Boy oh boy.

I haven’t done extensive accessibility testing of newegg.com, but here’s the first text (hidden) at the top of the mainpage: “If you are visually impaired and are having difficulty navigating this site, please call our Customer Support line.” Hmmm… I’m confused, if I can’t see the invisible text I should raise my hand? Of course!

What they are doing of course is putting that text there for those with screen readers, a vital but small portion of those with disabilities. They’re trying, but newegg.com probably doesn’t get the whole picture.

They should read this article titled Don’t Just Tick Boxes.

Accessible Twitter

Now, after a lengthy digression in which I partly laid out the history of the inaccessible Web, added in the Big AOL Bang, took a potshot at Nina Hagen, and poked newegg.com in the eye (Doh!) I come to Dennis Lembree and his remarkable construction of Accessible Twitter.

I believe that there are others involved in creating and maintaining and upgrading and generally futzing with Accessible Twitter. Dennis is to be lauded, as is anyone else who is contributing including:

Dennis has poured what looks to be his every waking moment into Accessible Twitter. And it is truly accessible. I can even navigate with the keyboard. I get an audio cue when I’ve reached milestones in my character count. It is semantic, and there are proper headings.

Oh, about that audio cue. Erm… do NOT leave your speakers turned up most of the way when using Accessible Twitter. Makes me jump every time I hear “30 characters” loudly proclaimed. You’ll want to wear headphones if anyone else is trying to sleep.

Dennis Lembree is a pioneer, a magician, a dedicated soul who is the heart of the real Internet, the Internet I have come to love so much. The Internet that helped me for free when my daughter was born with severe disabilities in 1992. The Internet that freely helped me heal a RAID array on Christmas Eve 1997 so our thesis students could resume their work. The Internet of thoughtful individuals giving their time for fun and for free so that others may benefit, thoughtful individuals like Tim Berners-Lee. That’s who Dennis is. And that’s why he deserves our support, because he’s giving it away, for fun and for free, expressing love one Tweet at a time.

You might also want to read Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with.

@csunwebmaster

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