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Ftrain is Accessible

At least, I think it's accessible.

Ftrain.com is a personal web site, and designed to be accessible to all readers. I've had to make some changes and screw with things a bit in order to make things work, so if something looks wrong to you, please email me.

Ftrain has always (i.e. for 5+ years) made an attempt to accommodate those using text-mode browsing, usually through special scripts that dynamically parsed content, and a number of people do read it that way, particulary, for some reason, Canadians.

Now, however, the dynamic, catastrophic interplay of web developers, CSS experts, and browser-makers has resulted in enough kludges, workarounds, and genuinely thought-about solutions that it is possible to build a single set of pages that work fairly well however they're viewed, whether by advanced jet-set browsers like Mozilla and I.E., text-only browsers like W3M and Lynx, or, I hope, screen-readers like JAWS. The odd kids out are Netscape 4.x, in which pages such as these explode all over the place, and Opera, which has some odd behaviors but works most of the time.

Ah well. I cannot please everyone. If a reader is using an outdated, broken software product, like Netscape 4.x, then the onus is, somewhat unfairly, on them to upgrade. However, if someone is using a software package that is the best possible tool for their particular way of reading - i.e. a screenreader for the blind - then I will try to conform to that standard - not perfectly, perhaps, but well enough.

So accessibility has long been the goal, but I've been too lazy to look into the specifics. Luckily for me, Mark Pilgrim created a web site called Dive Into Accessibility which offers a checklist for making your site easier to read for a variety of individuals with different needs, and then Michael Barrish took up Mark's challenge, and made his own site accessible. Since I have my own metadata-driven publishing system based entirely on XML, and I estimated that compliance with most guidelines would probably take 3 hours or so to put together, it was inexcusable for me not to be compliant.

Thankfully, those few hours really were only a few hours - I've been alt-tagging and meta-data-ing for a while, so adding some extra content to my template system was fairly straightforward. I'm sure I'm missing something, but I am able to say with moderate confidence that the 1000+ separate pages on Ftrain should be, in their greatest portion, readable to nearly anyone.

There are, I know, images from 1997 that don't have alt tags, and instead of proper div or hr tags I use three hashes to indicate a section divide, but the important things - that the fonts can be increased or decreased in size (I like to read sites at 200%, far back from the monitor), that the story comes before the navigation, that things flow in a simple, linear way as well as in their gridded form, as well as particulars like accessibility keys, relative links, and so forth, are all in place.

One note of interest - a lot of accessibility concerns overlap naturally with the general direction of XML-based content development. For instance, XLink links provide a much larger range of options for where and how links point to URIs than the regular href element - and can also support linkbases, which can be extremely metadata-rich databases of links. This leads to a change in approach: rather than having links as elements in a page, you include references to a database of links (which can be, among other things, bidirectional), which means that issues of, say, link consistency can be avoided - and adding title tags is no longer required, as a full summary of the link can be included in the link database, and propogated in a uniform manner on a link-by-link basis. Centralized databases of content are useful for ensuring the consistency of content - they can help you name, and refer to things, consistently. One of the most valuable parts of the LaTeX system for typesetting is the bibliography functionality - and large, shared bibliographies allow citations databases to be built up effortlessly. A single ID, a single reference, and suddenly data can explode out of anywhere.

The point? That accessibility, in addition to being a good thing to provide, is one facet of a larger range of issues about connecting data, and that humans and computers can all benefit from a little more metadata.

Thanks to Mark and Michael for the indirect goading.

And a big shout out to God.


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Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.

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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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