April 13, 2018

A11y at DrupalCon

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This year was my first time going to DrupalCon, and experiencing it in Nashville was rip-roarin' great fun. I decided to focus on one main topic - Web Accessibility, or “A11y” for short. Here are my highlights and takeaways.

Sessions I attended

JavaScript and Accessibility: Don’t Blame the Language

Presented by Everett Zufelt, Director of Technology, Myplanet

This was the first session I attended at the conference, and wow, it set the bar very high. Everett Zufelt did some solid myth-busting about JavaScript and accessibility. While many people argue that client-side JavaScript frameworks are to blame for belching up a sea of inaccessible divs and spans, he argued that inaccessibility is not inherently JavaScript's fault. Zufelt is blind, and he illustrated his talking points through an expert blend of technical recommendations and examples from his daily life.

Examples were definitely my most valuable takeaways. Zufelt called out DrupalCon Nashville's main menu bar, which is inoperable on keyboards and screen readers. He also gave plenty of examples of successful custom JavaScript widgets in the wild. Winners like Mass.gov’s menu system, Expedia’s search functionality, and Hilton’s date-picker demonstrate exactly what it looks like when you're doing it right. None of this robust interactivity, he argued, would be possible without JavaScript. 

JavaScript and Accessibility recording

Modernize D8 Admin UX with Material Admin Theme

Presented by Brian Wald, Solutions Architect, Aquia

Imagine using a node edit form on your mobile device. Are you cringing yet? 

In this session, Brian Wald presented a proof of concept for his Drupal 8 Material Admin Theme.  The theme applies Google’s Material design patterns to Drupal’s dusty admin interface. It’s sleek, accessible, and, gasp mobile-friendly! It provides intuitive interaction patterns, simplified navigation, and other common-sense modernizations. This project was Wald’s response to UX research which shows that Drupal’s admin theme is a major pain point, and a glaring deficit for Drupal in competitive business situations. 

Mobile-responsive design is an essential part of a11y, which makes this topic multi-faceted. Material Admin Theme demonstrates how a user's perception of Drupal as clunky and slow melts away with the help of a Googlesque facelift and a few simple UX improvements. 

Material Admin Theme project

Accessibility BoF

Presented by... a bunch of a11y nerds, chillin' in a room! 

BoF stands for "Birds of a Feather," a casual discussion group centered around a shared interest. We had a lively discussion, and touched on a variety of subjects, like:

  • Selling accessibility to your audience when empathy is not their currency
  • Judging the context of alternative text
  • PDF remediation and using EPUB as an alternative
  • Black hat and white hat accessibility “services” preying on your data
  • Developing for users with invisible disabilities

You can catch the bulk of our discussion here, in this 360 video:

A11y BoF live broadcast

The Accessible Editor

Presented by Corey Vilhauer, UX Architect, Blend Interactive

This session dove into the grey areas around creating accessible content. A lot of people are scared to navigate this grey area, where accessibility succeeds or fails based on human judgement calls. Our understanding of context is everything. I left this session with more confidence in my ability to make these sorts of judgement calls.

Vilhauer spent a few minutes at the beginning covering a11y basics. I was worried he might stall there, spending most of his time arguing why we should care, and neglecting to provide any technical depth. I was so glad when that didn’t happen. Instead he framed our purpose around a delightful, practical discussion of tactics. How to caption video content, how to write strong alt text, how to write in plain language, how to implement these practices on an organizational level, how much heading text is too much, or too little… and other tricky questions you never knew you had.

The Accessible Editor presentation recording

A Smarter Way to Test Accessibility - A Comparison of Top Tools

Presented by Everett Zufelt and Laura Johnson, Myplanet

Imagine yourself in this situation (...you've totally been here before). You’ve just discovered some hot new tool. You're eager to share it with all your teammates, and you want to get them using it too. But what happens when you don’t integrate it into your existing workflow?

A whole lot of nothing. 

Considering this struggle, Everett Zufelt and Laura Johnson demonstrated how to use three automated testing tools: Tenon.io, WAVE API, and Lighthouse. Live demos covered browser extensions, and a Git integration with Lighthouse CLI. They asked two big questions: What are the limitations of automated a11y testing? And, how can we make these tools a part of our continuous integration workflows? 

My “imagine if” scenario is only partially relevant. The “hot new tool,” or the silver bullet, doesn’t exist for a11y testing. Not really. Automated tools cannot fully test accessibility. Only a human can interpret the visual affordances of a UI and evaluate if that interactivity exists across formats. AI just isn’t smart enough yet. Zufelt mentioned that even the creator of Tenon.io admits these tools are only diagnostic.

I was excited to hear that Tenon.io offers the ability to crawl and test an entire site. WAVE API promises a similar feature on the horizon. For now Zufelt argues that automated tools, coupled with an appropriate CI workflow, are merely a starting point.

"A Smarter Way to Test..." presentation recording

Favorite Session: Yeah, I'm Totally a Cyborg

Of all the talks I attended, Emily Rose's keynote on Thursday morning was my favorite. They presented a powerful statement on compassion and human potential at the cutting edge of technology. The keynote is called The Future is Now: Realizing Your Potential as a Cyborg. Have a watch. Maybe you'll find out you're kind of a cyborg too.

Sessions I missed

Core Accessibility

I saw a lot of talks at DrupalCon, but I missed even more. I regret not being able to see Core Accessibility: Building Inclusivity into the Drupal Project. There just weren't enough hours in a day! Have a watch, and let me know your thoughts!

We'd love to chat about your next web or application project!