I recently read Vision Australia’s Achieving Accessibility in SharePoint 2010 white paper and found it really interesting because when I worked in a web team for the Australian federal government, SharePoint was synonymous with being horribly, horribly inaccessible.
Admittedly, this was a few years ago when discussions like Accessify forum’s caning of Sharepoint 2003 and the underwhelming improvements of Microsoft SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 were the order of the day. With those sorts of reviews in mind, I didn’t keep up with SharePoint’s development for a while.
However, SharePoint 2010 is getting much better accessibility press as Parity’s assessment of MOSS 2010 against WCAG 2.0 and WAI-ARIA shows. And if Vision Australia, as Australia’s peak body for blind and low vision services, has given MOSS 2012 such a positive endorsement by using it as its document management and collaboration, then that’s worth taking notice of.
This is exactly the sort of progress that I’m very happy to see: one of the big players making their products accessible out of the box. This is especially good since Microsoft is so good at getting their products seen by many IT managers in government as the only logical option (I don’t know how often I heard IT managers and CIOs say “Everyone’s moving to SharePoint.”) and if that ‘only logical option’ supports accessibility, then this is a good thing.
The positive accessibility developments in MOSS 2010 show that the relationship between Microsoft and Vision Australia is bearing fruit. ITWire reported that Microsoft is supporting Vision Australia with “a software grant of over $6.6 million … – the largest the company has so far made to an Australian organisation – will be used to enhance Vision Australia’s services and to upgrade its IT … In return, Vision Australia will provide Microsoft with R&D advice in the area of accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision.”
Vision Australia’s white paper highlights some of MOSS 2010’s accessibility features:
- “• enhanced keyboard access to all functionality including the new ribbon interface;
- • changes to overcome technical conformance issues that occurred with master pages and controls in MOSS 2007;
- • improved page reading sequences and representation of tabular data; and
- • new accessibility features such as WAI-ARIA roles and attributes to enhance the experience of assistive technology users.
… Where a suitable assistive technology is not available, Microsoft continues to provide the “More Accessible Mode”. This mode renders dynamic controls such as menus as standard HTML controls so they will work with a wider range of assistive technologies and provide a simpler interface for some users.
… SharePoint 2010 also includes major improvements in the use of metadata and search. As an interface, search is a familiar and efficient way for people who are blind or have a mobility impairment to manage and quickly navigate large volumes of information.
… The close integration between SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 also supports a “single accessible” platform approach.”
These are all very encouraging improvements for MOSS 2010.
The white paper also outlined Vision Australia’s assessment of MOSS 2010 against the WCAG 2.0 guidelines:
“We assessed against each success criteria as either complying out of the box; requiring customisation to meet the criteria; or requiring a governance decision about how a function is implemented or not including a specific function to achieve conformance.”
Vision Australia’s graph shows that 79% of SharePoint 2010 can largely achieve accessibility conformance out of the box.
I like that the white paper gave some detail about the customisation and governance issues – that they were to do with page structure, the Rich Text Editor and complex interfaces. However, I’d like more detail here such as which success criteria fell under the customisation grouping and which fell under governance?
A bit more information about Sharepoint 2010’s performance against WCAG 2.0 can be found at DegerTech’s SharePoint accessibility compliance test results.
Vision Australia have a advantageous position in implementing SharePoint in an accessible way. They are primarily concerned with servicing the blind and visually impaired community and their workforce is made up of nearly 20% people with a disability, so they have an unusually good opportunity to influence how Sharepoint is implemented. Your average government agency doesn’t have the same mission and stakeholders that Vision Australia has so they’re not as focussed on meeting the needs of disabled people.
Vision Australia breaks down SharePoint’s accessibility issues into complying out of the box, requiring customisation or requiring a governance decision. This is a perfectly sensible breakdown, however many organisations would struggle to get the items that fall into the customisation and governance groups dealt with adequately because they need buy-in from management or funding to manage these issues to get the best result for accessibility.
A likely implementation of SharePoint 2010 for a government agency is that the features that are accessible out-of-the-box work fine but other features that aren’t the most accessible would also be there too – the ones requiring customisation or governance decisions to make them accessible. This might happen because accessibility wasn’t considered in the early stages of the implementation or other business interests that make use of inaccessible features trump accessibility concerns.
This is still a better option overall than what would have been rolled out with previous versions of SharePoint. Also, since the customisation and governance group of checkpoints is small, this gives accessibility advocates in an organisation a smaller job to tackle.
Dealing with accessibility issues in SharePoint through governance decisions is cheaper than creating or purchasing customised solutions. Therefore it is great that SharePoint has enough flexibility to have alternative features that could be used if certain features such as the People Picker, Document Approval and Rich Text Editor present accessibility issues.
The white paper also points out that because the SharePoint model is all about distributed creation and sharing of web content, there is a risk that business areas can create content that is not accessible, undermining the efforts that have been made to implement a system that can be accessible. This can be managed by authors using the Accessibility Checker in Word 2010, content creation templates and web content approval workflows.
These options, however, also require strong management support to provide funding for staff training on how to create accessible content and to establish governance controls to ensure inaccessible content isn’t published.
Overall, this is a very positive development for accessibility and I’m glad Microsoft has put the effort into this. SharePoint is performing well against the WCAG 2.0 guidelines and has put work into meeting WAI-ARIA to make web applications more accessible. To keep the positive work going, Microsoft should aim to completely meet WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines when they release SharePoint 2013. Microsoft should also address the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 to make SharePoint more accessible to web content authors with disabilities. This would be particularly important for an organisation like Vision Australia which has a workforce made up of 20% people with disabilities.
However, because SharePoint 2010 doesn’t fully meet WCAG 2.0 AA compliance out of the box, accessibility champions in an organisation need to work on securing management support to put strong governance in place that will ensure implementation decisions address accessibility concerns.
The first step of Vision Australia’s implementation of SharePoint is to roll it out as its document management and collaboration solution. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes with the later steps for its intranet and internet sites and its corporate approval process.
Richard Corby is a web accessibility expert and is a partner at Webbism.