An Interview with Armen Mnatsian, Former Joomla Accessibility Team Leader
In this issue we publish an interview with Armen Mnatsian, former Joomla Accessibility Team Leader.
Joomla Community Magazine: Armen, as the former lead for the Joomla Accessibility team, can you tell us what does it mean when we talk about accessibility of the web?
Armen Mnatsian: You might think that accessing the web is something that anyone should be able to do easily, once they have a web-enabled device and an internet connection. Unfortunately, this is certainly not the case for everyone. In fact, it would not even cross the minds of many people that they may not be able to access sites and software.
When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web, declared that “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect”, he was inclusive in his use of the term “everyone.”
However, it is a fact that currently most websites and web software have accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access or use the web. A report published by the United Nations in 2011 estimated there were 1-1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world. That was the same number as the population of China in 2014 (1.39 billion) and about four times the population of the U.S. in 2014 (318.9 million). In fact, persons with disabilities are the largest minority in the world.
JCM: What can be done to make sure sites and software are web accessible?
Building sites and software that are Web Accessible is not only considered good design and planning but also reflects smart thinking in a project, as a it reaches a broader audience.
At this point, it is worth mentioning another element in the build and design mix that may be misunderstood or even mixed up with Accessibility – and that is “Usability”. It is very important to understand that they are not the same.
Usability is about designing sites and software that enrich the user experience. Sites should be effective, efficient, and satisfying. ISO - the International Organisation for Standardisation - defines usability as the “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction in a specified context of use" (ISO 9241-11).
Accessibility, on the other hand, is a term that we apply to sites or software which enables people with disabilities to access such sites – in other words, allowing them to see, understand, navigate, and interact with those websites, software and tools - and that they can contribute equally without any barriers.
I, as a person with a disability, find it hard, sometimes, to make designers and developers understand these differences.
I will try to explain how sites and software can be made “Web Accessible” - in order to understand it better; it is easier to query the scope and design behind the sites and software, asking questions such as Why? What? Who? And How?
JCM: Why should developers provide an accessible website?
AMN: I think we all agree that accessing the Web is a basic human right. It should be accessible, providing equal access and opportunity to people with diverse abilities. There should be no discrimination in providing access to information and communications technologies.
Accessibility also supports social inclusion, and this includes people in developing countries, in rural areas, or in cases where people develop certain disabilities, such as older people.
There are various kinds of disabilities, and the major categories include:
- Visual: blindness, low vision, color-blindness
- Hearing: deafness and hard-of-hearing
- Motor: inability to use a mouse, slow response time, limited fine motor control
- Cognitive: learning disabilities, distractibility, inability to remember or focus on large amounts of information
There are also other disabilities, such as those relating to social aspects. They should not be ignored, even if, as a designer or developer, you may think they are not on your radar as you only wish to build a quick and simple site that will earn money as quickly as possible. In fact, accessibility can help your business, and there are proven, tangible benefits to making sure your site is accessible.
When one considers building an accessible website, it should include international best practices. Think of mobile web design, color schemes, device independence, multi-modal interaction, usability, design for older users, and last but not least, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). Accessible sites will help reach more people, have a better ranking in search engines and increase a site's conversion rate.
As you can see, there are numerous positive arguments as to why one should consider accessibility, when planning and designing a website and software. It is a win-win situation, and everybody will benefit of it. Of course, there might be need to spend more time and effort considering the why, what, who and how, making concessions as one workw his/her way through the design and build process. But in the end, there will be a site that is accessible and usable to many more people on the web.
JCM: What can be done to make projects more accessible?
AMN: There are many things that can be done to achieve this goal by authors and editors. But there are also some that depend on designers, programmers, and webmasters. Here are three examples.
Alternative descriptions of non-text content
We like images, video and sound recordings. However, people who are blind or with low vision will not see the picture or the film and deaf people will not hear a song or sound program, until we provide them with alternative texts to significant images, audio description and subtitles for films or text of a soundtrack. This can be done by any author or any editor.
Break up content with subheadings, paragraphs, lists
Large walls of text, justified to the left and right, cause trouble to many, especially for people with cognitive difficulties or dyslexia.
Just divide them into parts and short paragraphs, add subheadings (headers), apply lists and align the text to the left. Everyone will benefit.
Keyboard navigation only
For websites to be accessible to such people, designers and programmers must ensure that all interactive elements of the site will be accessible only via the keyboard, if necessary. If this is not done by designers and programmers, then authors and editors can do nothing.
My golden rule is to always make sure that the information you provide can be heard by someone who is blind and can be seen by someone who is deaf.
JCM: Who should consider Accessibility?
AMN: Anyone! It is all about awareness. When we are not aware of the world we live in and the people around us, then our design may not really be fit for purpose. It starts with that basic awareness – and, in our case, everyone who is involved in the Project must be aware of site visitors and users of Joomla software and systems, whether they are part of leadership, UX designers, developers, designers, writers, translators, etc.
JCM: How can Joomla do it?
AMN: In every instance, we need to know and understand our audience – i.e., who is this for, where will it be used and who are we working with. Different countries and regions have different regulations and standards. For example, regulations in the United States differ to those within the European Union.
At Joomla, we start from the very top, understanding what we are doing and why. Then, cascade it throughout the community. Leaders must, then, train their teams and community members, and help them understand accessibility.
There is help for those who want it – the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide an international set of guidelines. WCAG can also help us understand why and how to implement accessibility, in our project.
JCM: So when did the web first start to consider Accessibility?
AMN: Let me go back in time, as far back as those early days, when the web came into being, in 1989.
WCAG 1.0 made an appearance on 5 May 1999 with the official W3C recommendation for the accessible web. It is fair to say that with the commercialization of the Web, there was also a growing awareness of the need for accessibility. WCAG 2.0 appeared on 11 December 2008, as an official W3C recommendation. There is a new version of WCAG 2.1. The new official W3C recommendations are imminent, so watch this space...
JCM: What about Accessibility and Design or UX?
AMN: All three are interconnected - I think Accessibility should be considered right at the start when the idea for the design first takes shape. Likewise, Accessibility should be built into the early project blueprints.
A good UX should be accessible, useful, usable, desirable, valuable, findable and credible. It should include detailed consideration of layout, navigation, design, font, size, color and all other elements on the page. In fact, it should be a guiding principle.
Accessibility covers four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. In my opinion, the accessibility principle provides guidance and support for well thought-out design and UX.
JCM: Is Joomla, in this current version, ready for building websites with good accessibility?
AMN: I can say YES! with confidence.
Joomla is great for building accessible websites. It is like the proverbial Swiss army knife - there are so many tools and features, the opportunities and possibilities are endless! Even I struggle to know them all. There are template overrides or custom fields, standard support for the multilingual sites, etc.
One can build a fully accessible website that is WCAG 2.0 AA standard compliant using Joomla! CMS as it is now. It is only a matter of knowing what is being done and what the goals are.
JCM: So what is Joomla 4 adding in terms of accessibility?
AMN: The aim is for Joomla 4 frontend and backend to be fully Accessible to WCAG 2.0 AA standard.
JCM: Who is working on Joomla 4 Accessibility?
AMN: The Joomla Accessibility Team (JAT) team within the project, and we deal with tests.
As former team lead, I was usually the first to be approached by developers or designers for advice or tests. Recently we have split JAT to four subteams, and we have now “JAT - Audit & Testing” subteam which will be doing audit and testing. Stefan Wajda is the lead of this subteam now; this team is grown since we were at JWC Rome. We have some team members with specialist accessibility knowledge. However, accessibility expertise is not always required, and other members also carry out tests, where accessibility expertise is not necessarily required.
We work together with the Joomla 4 team, Joomla 4 has involved some teams including the New Media Manager Team and many more.
JCM: Could you describe a piece of work which the team is working on for Joomla 4?
AMN: JWC Rome official Joomla Accessibility Team (JAT) provides testing support and advice, and as a team, we work closely together, using Glip and other chat tools as well as GitHub.
Whilst “JAT - Audit & Testing” subteam is carrying out most of the testing and consultation, on user experience, the rest of the team members are not all active at the same time. We are setting other subteams at this moment to be more efficient. This is the list of our subteams:
- JAT – Audit & Testing (Official)
- JAT – Implementation & Development (In formation)
- JAT – Promotion (In formation)
- JAT – Help & Documentation (In formation)
We are growing and always looking for new contributors to help in testing. If you are interested in joining us, you can find more information about JAT in the volunteers’ portal and GitHub.
JCM: What kind of skills is the team looking for?
AMN: We can use any help we can get; we need people with accessibility knowledge or empathy with accessibility – we also want people who want to learn and invest their time in doing so. At the heart of what we do is a desire to make Joomla a better ecosystem, with accessibility at its core. We are also seeking programmers, who can add accessibility to the Joomla core code and liaise with other teams, as well as users such as graphic designers, template designers, trainers, authors, marketers, translators. Likewise, we need volunteers who can write, to help us prepare documentation, testing scenarios, etc., as well as translators for all the documentation.
JCM: What do you think is the future of the accessibility on the web?
AMN: Well, I am certainly not an oracle or some Guru who can predict the future of the accessibility on the web. However, it is my personal opinion that accessibility will at some point in the distant future become part of our everyday digital life. There will be a time when it is not discussed as an item on a wish list anymore but considered as an integral part of the build and design of websites and software, as natural as using HTML and CSS.
You can see this taking shape now, especially as the topic is developing in legal terms. We can also see that the larger multi-nationals are more aware of accessibility and they are using it as a marketing tool.
We need to recognize that technology is changing our lives in ways which seem incomprehensible just a few years ago. And this change is constant. In the near future, we will have much more access to information in an accessible way. I expect our cars, TV’s, watches, computers, microwaves, refrigerators to talk to us and we will interact with them. Will the technology become fully accessible or not? AI will certainly help.
JCM: To summarise and answer the big question that I am sure a lot of Joomla Users are waiting to hear about - Will Joomla 4 be WCAG 2.0 AA Compliant in the first release of the series?
AMN: Yes! Joomla 4 will be WCAG 2.0 AA compliant, for the front-end and backend.
When I had first discussed this with George Wilson, he had said that, if JAT doesn’t approve Joomla 4 as accessible, then it will not go live. This was not a statement made in haste. To put it into perspective - consider how the Joomla community functions, how the developers within Joomla function and our place within the community. Then, you will realise the extent of the commitment shown by Joomla.
It is probably true to say that many Joomlers don’t know about the existence of our team. So in order to ensure that Joomla 4 is accessible, the process had to be enshrined correctly, from top to bottom – from the board that needs to stand behind the concept of accessibility and speak loudly about it, to the production department that must include it in the Joomla development workflows and procedures.
At the moment, the team needs assurance from across the project. Our work is still ongoing and I shall be pleased when every department will provide us with their Accessibility compliance. Then we can continue to share the importance of Accessibility across every part of the Joomla Community.