May 31, 2013

ATutor and the idea of accessibility

When the list of organizations were announced back in early April, I had no idea if I would even be considered for any project. Almost two months later, it feels that I have come a long way. Bluntly put, my work would be to make ATutor look better.

Most web developers are fascinated by how easy HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery have made their lives! However, although they are making > 95% of people happy with their smooth websites, the rest struggle with dealing with.

The very idea of web accessibility is to provide users of all abilities and disabilities the same information and functionality at minimal effort. For example, blind users can't interpret images for obvious reasons; hence, images must have a textual equivalent so that screen readers are able to read it out. Another set of users are those who can't control the mouse with precision, and use only their keyboard for accessing websites. For them, proper tab indices help in navigation of the website. ATutor developed out of the unavailable of online learning tools following proper accessibility guidelines and has been going great in that regard.

There are many accessibility features in ATutor. There is a skip navigation link for keyboard users, so that they don't get irritated pressing the tab key repeatedly. All important images have an alternate text for screen readers to read out so that users with such assistive technologies do not miss out on anything. There are many more features like hide menus supporting old technologies which lack the support for columnar text laid out in tables.

That being said, making a visual change in ATutor is not so easy. For example, let me tell you about one of my discussions with my mentor. Let's say I want to replace a set of radio buttons which enable/disable a feature with a flip-switch (like that of an Android of iPhone). I have to first make sure that screen readers would be able to correctly catch the transitions, and also that it is supported by keyboard only users. Only then, can I proceed. Even after making the change, only after proper tests would it be accepted.

I have really liked the conversations that I have had with my mentor till now, and the coming days seem promising (although there is still almost three weeks for actual coding to start). With my experience of making websites which are compatible with IE 6 (although it gets irritating at times), I guess I am going to really enjoy doing this project!

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