Carroll Center for the Blind

Building Web sites isn’t a noble profession. Most of us don’t contribute to society in a truly meaningful way. We had a hobby that turned into a career, and we’re extremely fortunate to be able to do that. Sure, some of us work on products that do good in the world, I don’t want to completely dismiss that.

We’re not heart surgeons, or nurses, or even fire fighters; no one’s life depends on what we do and no one dies if we screw up. I try and remind myself of that fact when I get overly frustrated during a project as it helps keep complaining to a minimum and a little perspective (which is always good).

Yesterday was the first annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and even though there was only about a month’s notice, cities around the world participated. Obviously, I wasn’t able to attend them all, but I was able to sit in on Boston’s version at The Carroll Center for the Blind, there really couldn’t have been a better venue.

I like to think that the sites and applications I build are as accessible as possible. I mean, it really doesn’t take any time to throw ARIA roles in there and make sure your alt text is meaningful. It’s actually one of my pet peeves when developers/designers take accessibility shortcuts. It’s so easy to dimiss these standards because we so rarely meet the people they effect.

Last night I met some of these people. I watched a visually impaired gentleman navigate New York Times with a screen reader. It was awful. I saw first hand why using “click here” and “read more” are terrible for link text (I had heard about it, but never saw it first-hand). I got confirmation that sometimes it’s best to leave alt text blank and why we leave the attribute empty rather than removing it (screen readers announce the file path if the alt attribute is missing).

Going into last night, I knew a lot about accessibility because it’s been a focal point of my career for years. But there is a huge difference between reading a blog post about Web accessibility and watching a visually impaired person go through 20 minutes of struggling to reach the main content of a Web site you would normally find in under a second if you could see.

I won’t lie, it’s pretty rattling to see folks with actual problems struggle to use a medium that we take for granted. Not just the Web either, we had a fairly full discussion about on-screen TV menus as well. A lot of things, I’ll admit, I don’t really think about in my day-to-day life.

Overall, I think the GAAD event was a great success and I hope it grows for years to come. It’s aways nice to have a reminder that even though we don’t save lives there’s one small part of our jobs that can positively effect the lives of others.