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Achieving accessibility in WebSphere applications

As your company makes more of its applications available on the Web, you will need to determine the level of accessibility for each of those applications. The term accessibility describes how IT hardware, software, and services address and/or neglect the needs of a user community, including users with disabilities. To achieve this aim, accessible applications often include or interface with assistive technology such as screen reader software, voice recognition, screen magnifiers, and special keyboards.

For WebSphere Web- and applet-based applications, accessibility compliance is primarily a consideration of user interface design:

  • Information should not be lost when using an alternative presentation, such as with assistive technology (e.g., processing images with text-to-speech software).
  • Site navigation and input controls should also be available in non-default usage scenarios (such as keyboard-only access).
  • The overall user experience should not be a diminutive one for users with disabilities - resolve problems of information loss, inaccessible controls, and layouts that may be frustrating or long-winded from different views.
Users today expect higher levels of convenience and ease of use from software applications. However, wider adoption of the technology by new demographic groups, such as older users and special-needs communities, leads to new requirements of the software for accessibility. These requirements go beyond enhancements of convenience and constitute functional changes. Software compliance may address the needs of those with limitations of dexterity or mobility, vision impairments, loss of hearing, eye/hand coordination problems, and cognitive disability. Consider that images flashing at a certain frequency can incite epileptic seizures in some users; this is an example of why accessibility factors need to be taken seriously.

Some of the measures that address special-needs users include:

  • Text-to-speech synthesizer software for visually impaired users
  • Greyscale mode and high-contrast settings for color-blind users
  • Keyboard-only alternative for users with limited hand usage
These few examples of functionality are detailed in government standards for accessibility. The most commonly referenced standard is Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, which places a requirement on all U.S. federal agencies to use products and services that are accessible to people with disabilities. Similar directives exist in the EU, Japan, Australia, and across the globe.

Assistive Technology
Assistive technology includes software and hardware solutions such as screen reader software, voice recognition, screen magnifiers, special keyboards, and wireless communications. IBM provides screen reader software called Homepage Reader which is available as a beta download. Another example of assistive technology is the MS-Windows NT/XP operating system Accessibility Options (see Figure 1). These are reached via:Start Menu -> Settings -> Control Panel -> Accessibility Options.

These options include:

  • Settings for cursor flashing
  • The enabling of special keyboard settings such as StickyKeys, Filter Keys, ToggleKeys
  • The settings for high-contrast mode, including different larger and bolder fonts, combined with customizable background/foreground color schemes
Figures 2 and 3 of the same Windows XP desktop illustrate the effect of high-contrast settings.

As shown in Figure 3, the application's background has become black and many of the fonts are now bolder and larger. The font settings are adopted from the new system settings. Note that the figures include a Web page in Internet Explorer 6.0 and windows from MS Outlook and MS Word applications. All of these applications converted properly to the high-contrast settings, but this is not guaranteed to be the case.

Readers are encouraged to try out these settings and explore how different software packages and applications are affected. The results will vary according to software and version, and depend on whether or not it ignores or blocks Windows systems settings or overloads functions such as special keys. In general, the software needs to support these APIs explicitly, so it is not safe to assume it will be accessible by default.

Web Design Considerations: HTML
The main focus of accessibility considerations for Web applications is on how the content is presented using HTML, stylesheets, JavaScript, and media content. This is irrespective of whether the rendered pages are static or are created using dynamic server-side technology such as Servlets, JSPs, or Windows ASPs. Since it is the final product rather than the creation process that is key, the principles will apply to different types of architectures. This article focuses on WebSphere applications.

Clean Up the HTML
Many browsers are flexible in accepting HTML that does not meet HTML and XML standards. You cannot assume your rendered HTML meets specification even if it looks acceptable in the predominant browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape. The HTML needs to be cleaned up; assistive HTML readers do more than handle basic presentation and therefore require a coherent base to interpret. They are not as flexible in handling unstructured HTML as are normal browsers.

Here are some areas that will need to be addressed:

  • Add missing HTML end tags. Single tags such as <br> also require an end tag, as per XML guidelines.
  • Avoid uppercase HTML tags. XML is case sensitive so use lowercase tags only.
  • Use quotation marks in tag parameters.
Such changes will appear trivial at first, but if these formatting issues permeate most of the site's pages, a seemingly simple task becomes a large and tedious project.

There are tools to assist with the HTML cleanup work that automate fixing problems such as those highlighted above. IBM WebSphere Studio Application Developer 5.1 provides a facility to clean up HTML and JSPs. The "Cleanup" function is available via Web Perspective -> select HTML/JSP > right-click Cleanup Document (see Figure 4).

Clean Up the Forms
Before using automated tools to clean up the HTML, first check the format of forms. This requires a manual process, otherwise, if the HTML is reorganized by a tool (e.g., WebSphere Studio -> Cleanup Documents -> Insert Missing Tags) and form tags are moved around, you will likely lose information that is intended for submission to the server, which will break the application's functionality.

More Stories By Max King

Max King, based in Prolifics' London office, has extensive experience delivering WebSphere solutions for clients worldwide, including JP Morgan Chase, NYSE, Wal-Mart, Lufthansa, BNP Paribas, MetLife, Honda, and Hertz. As a senior member of the Prolifics WebSphere Consulting Division, he specializes in J2EE architecture and best practices, application development and deployment, production 'crit-sit' support, production readiness assessments, application migration, and messaging and integration.

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