Confessions of an accessibility sadist

If your mouse dies because of a software update, most people would rollback the update -- a small minority will continue to move forward regardless. All in the name of science and testing the world of accessibility.

Inside my emerge.log lie some fateful lines that changed the way I interacted with my user interface:

1199579150:  >>> emerge (3 of 15) x11-drivers/xf86-input-evdev-1.2.0 to /
Innocuous enough on its own to most people -- but that Sunday morning emerge would remove the horizontal axis from my mouse. It's hard to believe that I managed to use my Gentoo box at all, let alone for five months! (I was not alone in this situation either.)

But what it did do was show up the problem of accessibility and how few websites have actually thought about it seriously.

Desktop applications are by-and-large accessibility friendly: there are keyboard shortcuts, you can navigate the interface with a combination of the arrow, shift and tab keys, and as long as you don't want to do something that absolutely requires a mouse like photo cropping, you should be ok. I did ditch the mail client though, Evolution is too slow and clunky at the best of times and I do not recommend attempting to use up and down arrows in the preview pane if you wish to quickly move between two non-consecutive emails.

The real problem was Web navigation -- particularly Flash. It was impossible to get within Flash objects in order to manipulate them -- trying to adjust the volume in a YouTube clip -- although further investigation pinpoints this as a Firefox problem as I was able to get within the Flash player object in IE.

Then there were the layouts of some well visited sites. At the top of my list of sites that grated me enough to question their Web developers/designers ability are:
  • -- go to this page and attempt to read a travel or sport article. Hope you like holding down the tab key.
  • -- once your tabbing takes you past all the menu options, if you are still awake, watch how the tab order takes you between the columns. A true mind bend.
  • Google -- An unexpected member on the list, but navigating Google without a mouse is bloody annoying! If you think about what the user wants on a search results page, you'd be right if you guessed that it's the list of relevant results. However, you have to move between Google's other search options, the form elements and even the ads before you can get to the top result!

The simple fixture for a lot of this grief would be a decent taborder regime implemented on the above pages, especially for Google.

In the end, although I am glad that I now have two working axes on the mouse, it was an interesting if somewhat sadistic experiment in accessibility.

Some of the lessons learnt have stuck with me though -- I do find myself using Alt+F1 to open the GNOME menu and pressing Ctrl+Space to start and end playback in Rhythmbox -- so I guess it wasn't time entirely wasted.

Although last night the batteries died for my wireless mouse while I was using a Mac. Ever tried to navigate OS X without a mouse? It is impossible! Safari simply moves between HTML forms and the address bar while you try to navigate with the tab key, and I have no idea how to focus on the dock with just a keyboard.

In some instances, Linux and Windows are far ahead of the vaunted OS X desktop experience.