Comments Welcome on W3C User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Draft

The W3C WAI User Agent Accessibility Working Group, in which I participate, is looking for your comments on the current draft of UAAG 2.0.  Within the document, you will find specific areas that we are seeking comment on.

User agent, if you are not familiar with it, is the term used by W3C to describe what we more commonly call a Web browser, but it can also apply to media players and other software that provides a user interface to Web content.

UAAG 2.0 will eventually replace the UAAG 1.0 guidelines, which became a W3C Recommendation in 2002. Much has changed on the Web since the release of 1.0 and the current working draft is intended to bring the accessibility guidelines for user agent developers up to date.

Comments should be sent to the WAI UA public comment email address, by April 22, 2009.

Spring Flowers Bloom Early: DAISY and Buttercup

No, I am not changing the blog theme to Horticulture.  Instead, I wanted to write about some digital talking book developments announced two days before today’s official, and snowy (here in New Jersey) start of Spring.

On March 18, the DAISY Consortium announced the second release of Save as DAISY for Microsoft Word, and in the same announcement introduced ButtercupReader, a Web-based DAISY player implemented in Microsoft’s Silverlight by a firm called Intergen.  These are exciting developments, and worth taking a look at.

I will admit that I generally don’t rush out to praise efforts by Microsoft, but in this case, their support of DAISY is to be commended, albeit late in coming to fruition.

Save as DAISY, or in short, SAD,  is not a new concept, as products from Dolphin Computer Access have provided similar functionality for some time. What distinguishes SAD is its open source approach, and the fact that it is freely available.  It promises to provide every user of Microsoft Word the capability to generate a digital talking book publication based on the DAISY open standard.

So, does it work?  Yes, but not without problems.  Within a few minutes after installation, I was producing, or as SAD calls it, translating,  full text and audio DAISY books from my Word documents.  I was even able to listen to these books using Buttercup Reader (more on that below).  Feeling confident, I made a few, what I would consider, minor editing changes to the first document I had successfully translated, and then started the translation process again. Unfortunately, this time I wound up with no book and a corrupted Word document.  I dutifully reported this to the DAISY SAD forum, and await their response. In the meantime, backing up your source documents before using SAD is a good idea, or you may find yourself in a sad state.

In spite of the problem, I was impressed by the fact that I could start with a Word document and in minutes, have a working DAISY publication, with the audio narration automatically generated using the default Microsoft Speech API Sam voice installed with Windows XP.  I am not that enamored with Sam’s narration of my fine prose, so I’ll be exploring how to change the speech synthesizer SAD uses when time permits.

Can Save as DAISY convert every Word document to the DAISY format?  Short answer, no.   DAISY is based upon a model of structured, semantic markup, with guidelines available for authors to aid in correctly structuring their documents.  The current version of DAISY (DAISY 3 or ANSI NISO Z39.86-2005), uses an XML language called DTBook, designed specifically for representing the structure of books and other publications.

Converting any document to DAISY requires a process of mapping the structure in the source document to DTBook.  Microsoft’s Word format is notorious for the junk that results when converting to HTML, but Office Open XML has attempted, with mixed success, to bring some order to what was often chaos.  The key to creating a well structured DAISY book in Word is to apply the same rules we generally use for any accessible document authoring.  Extra care has to be taken, though, when using headings (e.g., Word’s Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) to maintain proper nesting of levels, a key to creating the navigation structure for a DAISY publication.

Save as DAISY is certainly promising, but not apparently without flaws.  I would also comment that in Microsoft Word 2007, SAD installs as the Accessibility ribbon, which I think is a little confusing. Though, SAD, and DAISY are great developments for accessibility, the use of the label Accessibility may promise the Word user more than it delivers, especially for those already at a loss on where to find common accessibility features such as adding alt text to an image. Why not just label the ribbon DAISY?  Unless, of course, SAD’s goal is to add more accessibility related features for Word documents in the future.  SAD’s documentation also leaves something to be desired, and seems more beta than a release 2 product would suggest.

As a concept, being able to produce a DAISY talking book from a mainstream product such as Word is a significant step for accessibility.  Adobe should do the same across their products,  as has been suggested to them in the past.  It should be noted that Adobe has added support for saving as DTBook (or ePub) from within InDesign, a good first step, and FrameMaker’s XML capabilities can support DTBook. And, there is even a Save as DAISY plug-in for OpenOffice Writer.  Let’s see if other mainstream products will follow this lead.

Buttercup Reader was a pleasant surprise. This isn’t the first time that Silverlight has been used to build a DAISY player, as Tanakom Talawat has had a beta of his DAISY Now project available since last year.  And it joins other Web-based DAISY players such as Charles Chen’s cool Dandelion prototype.

As a Web-based player,  ButtercupReader comes across as slick, functional, and well designed, especially given that it is termed an early demo.  I have had my concerns about Silverlight, but perhaps now I will be a bit more open minded.  The developers of Buttercup, Intergen, state that they will be using the player as a vehicle for demonstrating how to create accessible, rich internet applications using Silverlight, and have a presentation and demo at MIX09 to get the ball rolling.

I tested Buttercup using Firefox on both Windows XP and Mac OS 10.4, and was able to read the supplied samples as well as my own local DAISY books.   Buttercup requires locally stored DAISY books to be within a zip archive, which meant that I needed to zip up the books I wanted to read.    Given that it is only demo, we can ignore that the bookmark feature is not functional, and a common DAISY player feature, speed up and slow down of playback, is not present.  However, Buttercup is a great start, and I hope the developers follow through and turn it into a full product.

Artifact: pwWebSpeak

In the brief history of the World Wide Web, we have seen a number of technologies and ideas come and go.  The non-visual, or self-voicing, Web browser is one technology that emerged in 1995-1996 and sought to solve the challenges that people with visual impairments were facing when trying to access the Web. pwWebspeak was one such product, joined by IBM’s Home Page Reader, and a number of research oriented systems.  These products arose because screen readers of the time had significant challenges in presenting and interacting with Web content. Fortunately, with the advent of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and improvements in Web content, accessibility APIs, and screen readers,  these specialized browsers became largely obsolete.

Having faded into the sunset, the legacy of these pioneers is worth noting, as they served as a proving ground for Web accessibility and influenced how users of current screen readers interact with the Web today.

If you are interested in learning more about one of these pioneers, I have added an article on pwWebSpeak to the TakingInterfaces Artifacts section.

And, if you want to experience a self-voicing browser without stepping back into the 1990’s, Charles Chen’s FireVox add-on for Firefox is highly recommended.  For those on Linux, T.V. Raman’s emacspeaks, now in its 29th release, is still the best and just about only implementation of Aural CSS (Opera includes ACSS support).