Notes from AHEAD 2014

I'm honored to be the closing plenary speaker at AHEAD 2014, the annual conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability.

Thinking back to a previous AHEAD conference, I recall a plenary speaker who proudly announced that he didn't have any slides; he would just be talking. This proclamation was met with applause; even a few very enthusiastic whoops!. So I'm a little nervous about presenting to this same crowd with 70 slides.

Why do some people not like slides? Are they really a bad thing? For audience members who have difficulty processing auditory information, I think it can be helpful to complement talk with visual content. That's a good application of universal design. Probably the enthusiastically anti-slide crowd that year had endured a few too many talks at other venues (not AHEAD, of course) where speakers simply read from their slides, which is boring; or said things like "As you can see from this slide", which is offensive to folks in the audience who can't see the slide. I try not to do either of these things.

For me, the slides are there to complement what I'm saying, and serve to keep things visually interesting for folks who need that stimulation. My voice, without slides, would have only been half a talk. Conversely, the slides, without my voice, would be similarly incomplete. I explain all this in order to justify my not posting the full slide deck online. Without context many of my slides would simply be pictures without meaningful content. So instead, I'm repurposing my slide content in this blog post, in a format better suited to the current medium. Following is the content of my talk organized into two sections, Resources and Ideas.

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Alt Text in Word: Title vs Description

In my recent blog post on Converting Word to PDF or HTML, I described some confusion that stems from Microsoft Word's having two fields, Title and Description, for entering alt text for images. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Greg Kraus of NC State had recently written a similar blog post in which he echoed this confusion.

Screen shot of Word 2011's Format Picture dialog with Title and Description fields

Prior to Office 2010, Word only had one alt text field, which was simple enough. That's the field you would use to add a brief description of the image, and your description would survive as alt text when the Word doc was exported to tagged PDF or HTML.

But now there are two fields, Title and Description, in all versions of Word from 2010 onward.

Word's Format Picture dialog includes help text that describes Microsoft's intention: "The screen reader first reads the title. The person can then decide whether to hear a longer description."

This isn't a bad idea. It's analogous to the alt and longdesc attributes that have historically been used for different purposes in HTML. All informative images need a short, sweet description in order to provide access to the image content (alt); and some images additionally need a long description where the content is too complex to be described succinctly, for example a chart, graph, or diagram (longdesc).

However, this model can only be effective if it's well supported and properly implemented, and currently it's not. This model has been adopted by other tools, include Google Docs, Open Office, and Libre Office, all of which now have both Title and Description fields for alt text. However, there are variations in how this data is used and whether it survives when exported or imported from one application to another.

So, which field(s) should you use? Answer: It depends...

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Cleaning up Word’s HTML with Regular Expressions

Today I'm celebrating Independence Day by declaring independence from presentational HTML markup!

In my previous blog post I explored strategies for converting Microsoft Word docs to accessible PDF and HTML. For HTML, I found that Word produces a relatively clean HTML file if you save to "Web page, filtered" in Word 2010 or 2013 for Windows or "Save only display information into HTML" in Word 2011 for Mac.

The HTML that Word produces preserves heading structure, includes image Title and Description together as a combined alt attribute, preserves language of the document and any foreign language parts, and preserves table headers.

However, there are two problems with Word's output:

  1. Lists are tagged as paragraphs.
  2. There is no way to suppress style output; consequently the document contains embedded CSS plus width, align, and other presentational attributes that are designed to preserve the visual appearance of the document.

Regarding the latter problem, I don't want any presentational markup in my document! I plan to plug the content into a website that already has an external style sheet. I want complete separation of content and structure from presentation.

I tried several online Word to HTML converters without satisfaction. Even HTML Tidy (e.g., HTML Tidy Online) doesn't seem to have an option to achieve my desired level of tidiness. The only solution I've found is to manually strip out all the unwanted markup using an HTML editor. This sounds tedious but most HTML editors include an option that allows users to search and replace content using regular expressions, which greatly streamlines the process.

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Converting Word to PDF or HTML: Options for Accessibility

I write a lot. I'm writing this blog post in the rich text editor that's provided with WordPress, and I trust it will output nice clean HTML. This is good way of working, but often my writing involves much lengthier documents, and often I'm writing in collaboration with others. The tool of choice for these projects tends to be Microsoft Word, and often the final document will be published either in PDF or HTML.

I also evangelize a lot, encouraging authors to take a few simple steps to ensure the documents they produce are accessible to readers with disabilities. Most authors I work with are writing and editing in Word, and when their document is finished they will publish and distribute it in PDF, motivated primarily by the desire to ensure consistency across platforms, and in some cases to protect it from modification.

I'm also a Mac user, as are many of the people I work with. This blog post documents my quest for Mac-only solutions for converting Microsoft Word documents to accessible tagged PDF and clean, accessible HTML, but my lessons learned on this quest might apply to users of other platforms as well.

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Accessible Dropdown Menus Revisited

Back in March 2012 I wrote a blog post titled Accessible Dropdown Menus summarizing my observations with various accessible dropdown menu models, including Suckerfish, Son of Suckerfish, Superfish, Dropper Dropdown, UDM4, Simply Accessible, YUI MenuNav Node Plugin, and the Menubar widget example developed by the Open Ajax Alliance. Of all these, I liked the Open Ajax Alliance (OAA) example the best. Here's the original OAA menubar, and my customized OAA Menubar. Over the last 21 months, my thinking has evolved a bit, aand I've done quite a lot of further experimenting. Since lots of folks have stumbled upon and are referencing my earlier tests, I thought I should post an update documenting how my thinking has changed. Here goes... Continue reading