Promoting Accessible Web Design at SXSW

The event's logo is shown with the words "South by Southwest" in Braille belowI spent several days this week at SXSW promoting accessible web design in the Knowbility booth and gained a new perspective of Modern Health Talk in the process.

South by Southwest (SXSW)

“South By” is a week-long music & film festival with over 2,000 bands and dozens of movie premiers from all over the world, as well as a fairly new SXSW Interactive segment for web, mobile and social app developers. Downtown Austin is closed to traffic all week and mobbed by an entirely different and very creative, live-fast, party-hard, and die-young species that thrives on alcohol, energy drinks and a high-energy vibe that can over stimulate older people. Bloomberg described it as “Woodstock for Geeks.”

Making traffic and parking even worse, Austin holds its annual rodeo during the same week. So each year I avoid the mess and have never attended even the tech conference, although it is credited for launching Twitter, Foursquare and other web hits and might normally have been interesting to me.

I just found the whole thing too loud, wild and geeky, and with way too much purple hair, tattoos & body piercings for my taste. But this year was different. Some of its attention shifted to Health, and that’s why I was there with Knowbility, taking the Metro Rail from near home to avoid traffic and parking hassles.

A New Look at Web Design (new for me anyway)

Universal access to education, jobs, government and society today means going online on the Internet, but imagine what it’s like for someone who’s blind, has severely limited vision, has some other disability that makes access difficult, or where English is not their primary language. I sat down with a blind person to get a critique of Modern Health Talk and listen to the text read aloud with JAWS screening reading software.

In the simplified video below, the spoken text is slowed down considerably so a sighted person can understand it, but when I listened to my own website at the speed that my blind critic demonstrated it, I could hardly make out what was said. She, on the other hand, could “hear” my webpage faster than I could read it myself, and I found that fascinating.


The SXSW critique of my website showed that it was fairly accessible, but several areas need improvement, including:

Headings – Screen reader users rely heavily on the heading hierarchy for navigation and so do search engines, so I make it a practice to use headings with the proper hierarchy. After my blind critique, I’ll pay more attention to it.

Links – I include descriptions of links that appear when you mouse-over the link, but I now have a new perspective of what a blind person hears.  For example, when I say, “links to a Huffington Post article,” the blind person hears, “LINK: links to a Huffington Post article.” The “links to” is redundant.

Images – I also use a Title to describe images as you mouse over them, but I learned that Alt-Text is what screen readers see. Going forward I’ll include descriptive text there too when appropriate.

Plug-ins – The WordPress software that I use creates a pretty accessible website, but some of the third-party plug-ins that add features cause accessibility problems. Examples include the Tag Cloud in the right side-bar and the line of small Print, Email & Share icons at the bottom of each article or page. I won’t be able to fix those problems without removing the added feature or finding a better plug-in somewhere.

Flash – Apple iPhones & iPads can’t display flash-based videos or play flash-based audio, and neither can screen reader software. So, a blind person can’t hear my recorded interview with, which appears on the sidebar at the right of each page. At least I include a Listen to Us (radio interview) title and link to a page with program notes. I’ll be looking for an accessible WordPress plug-in to replace the one I use now.

Access Keys – Keyboard shortcuts can make it easier to skip directly to the “home page,” “search page,” “main content,” “top of page,” or any other URL the administrator defines, but so far I’ve been unable to find an Access Keys plug-in that’s compatible with the version of WordPress software used to create Modern Health Talk. I’ll keep looking.

CAPTCHAs – To help prevent spam and computer-automated posting of comments, I’ve been using those squiggly characters that only a human can read – a sighted human. I was reminded that they are entirely unreadable by blind people with screen readers, and this prevents much of my audience from adding comments. So… even at the risk of getting more spam, I’m completely removing CAPTCHAs until I find another solution.

Font Size – When designing the template for Modern Health Talk, I chose a reasonably attractive font that can be easily scaled larger or smaller using browser keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl + to enlarge and Ctrl – to shrink. I also chose high-contrast black on white, and those choices make it easy for someone who’s color blind or has low vision.

Video Captioning – I often embed videos from YouTube or Vimeo, but without captioning a deaf person is unaware of the dialog. Very few online videos support captioning, however. Captioning is useful even if you’re not deaf, such as when you’re in a sports bar among loud and rowdy fans or at a party at home. And it’s not that difficult to do with today’s speech recognition software. IBM has even shown real-time captioning as part of its multi-user telepresence system.

Video Description – Description addresses a different need: describing scenes in videos for the blind, but so far it’s a fairly manual and specialized process, so it’s expensive to do.

Accessibility Policy – With my new appreciation for accessible web design, I’ll devote more thought to it and plan to include an Accessibility Policy. Please let me know if you have any difficulties with this website that I can work on by leaving a comment below or sending me an email.


Knowbility is an Austin-based nonprofit supporting independent living for children and adults with disabilities by promoting the use and improving the availability of accessible information technology.

In today’s digital world, it’s never been more important for people to have access to web-based information since that means having access to education, jobs, government, and a say in society. That’s why Knowbility strives to help organizations make their websites and other technologies accessible to people who are blind, visually impaired, hearing impaired, or have mobility or cognitive impairments. Their goal is to create a barrier-free world of information technology with universal access for all!

Knowbility has accessibility experts, including veterans and people with disabilities, who can be hired to evaluate your website and work with your staff to make it accessible. They also teach classes for developers and special education teachers and run an annual Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR), where professional developers compete to create accessible websites for local community groups.

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Health Exhibitors and Resource Links


Comments on “Promoting Accessible Web Design at SXSW

  1. Art is the lifeblood of Austin and everything about the design scene in Austin has to offer for great website designers. I would moveto your company to a city with a robust capacity to inspire. Head on down to ATX for a visit and get in contact . This is the next zine centered happening place to be. Love It!

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