As detailed in my history of the site, what is now the Ladder started in the relatively early days of the world wide web, without much thought as to how big either it or the web would become. The intention was to simulate the experience of reading a ‘paperback’ edition but online, using hypertext to make all the usual scholarly features available in parallel. This aim is obviously incompatible in some areas with an aim of making the same facilities available to users with all levels of accomplishment in using computer technologies.

After giving careful consideration to the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility guidelines 1.0 as part of my upgrade of the Ladder to XHTML, I have found it impossible to meet all fourteen of their recommendations. There are two where the Ladder fails miserably :

guideline 2 : don’t rely on color alone
hypertext links in the Ladder are not underlined and, in James’s fictional text are not even distinguished by colour (this applies to all users, of course)

guideline 10 : use interim solutions
my site pops up a new tab or window for most links to external sites; additionally, features of the site outside a particular edition but which the user is likely to want to refer to in parallel with a text, also appear in a new tab/window; finally if used outside the normal frame setup (with the noframe introduction and menu page) notes will pop-up in a new tab or window

The reasons for this are integral to the aims of the site : ‘to make available electronic texts (etexts), suitable for reading on the world wide web, of some of the works not available elsewhere’ (see the site’s introductory page). To gain something of the reading context for which the texts edited here were originally designed, means removing as many of the distractions of the web environment as possible. In particular I would argue that fictional text generally, and Henry James in particular, is not suited to the interruptions to flow caused by the unwarranted emphasis of colour and underline. This was the rationale for the original design of the site, with links in James’s text kept the same colour as the surrounding text. In the upgraded XHTML editions, from March 2009 onwards, I have included a user option to reveal these links, but still in colour only, for those who want to read with the links visible. I wondered about making the switched on links underlined as well, but really couldn’t bring myself to it. I hate underlined links and keep the underlining turned off in my browser. In particular a menu of options all underlined gives a very poor visual presentation of the available choices. <expand>

As I am a non-funded ‘body’, working on this site in my spare time, I cannot afford the resource to make a separate set of parallel pages, with different style sheets, or even with different XHTML coding, to cater for what I hope is a small number of accessibility challenged users. In the eleven years the site has been on the web, I have never had any complaint about accessibility, or indeed, much feedback about the look and performance or the content of the site from anyone. (Are you listening, world?) I guess usage just isn’t that high, although, since the University of Birmingham made me move my websites off their servers in 2004 I haven’t had any good usage analysis tools to hand to find out.

If someone out there fancies taking on the task of making a W3C accessibility compliant version of these texts, I would be happy to negotiate with them under the terms of a suitable Creative Commons licence, to make available in a packaged format the required files. (I have sometimes wondered whether I should offer the option on the site of a compressed archive of the whole site for uses who want to ‘take it with them when they go’!) Be warned though: there are quite a number of areas in the presentation of James’s works here which it is not easy to fit in with the accessibility guidelines. In this, the guidelines themselves resemble the XML standards, whose strict tag-nesting requirements seem to make it unable to cope with expressing ‘real life’ documents and their messy structures.

In view of all the above points therefore, I have decided not to attempt to reach the Web Content Accessibility guidelines levels and validate the Ladder with any of the recognized validator engines. I offer apologies to those of you reading this, in whatever way, who are offended by this decision.

If you are not used to adjusting non-conformant sites to your use, please consult my notes below about ways you might be able to circumvent the design of the Ladder to met your particular requirements.

For reference, apart from the two guidelines mentioned above which are not met at all, the following W3C guidelines are met completely to level one 

and the others are met to level one for the most part :

The above lists do not preclude the fact that some guidelines are met to higher levels (level two or even in a few cases the top level, three).

options for improving accessibility

One of the major obstacles to software designed to aid accessibility can be frames. As described above meeting the aims of the Ladder seemed to require use of frames and I maintain this position. From the start of the site (see the history), when first-generation browsers were still in daily use, there has been a no-frames introduction and menu page for each edition. This has been retained and somewhat revised in the conversion of the site to XHTML. It is now a option linked from the menu, as the popular modern browsers don’t seem to offer the option to suspend frames’ display by using their preferences’ settings. Note however that a few features of the Ladder cannot be used without frames, chiefly the parallel-texts editions of the plays with their associated prose counterparts.

In order to allow subsequent pages to appear with the minimum fuss when linked from the noframes introduction and menu page the latter ‘labels’ the window with the name of the central panel of the frame set, ‘text’. Because of the naming behaviour of some browsers, if you use the ‘noframe’ option and then go to any conventional frames version in the same window/tab, you may experience some difficulty with the main pages opening in the whole window instead of in the correct frame. I know that this problem occurs in both IE7 and Firefox 2. It doesn’t affect my Linux installation of Opera version 9.63. This is why there is currently no link back to the frames version on the noframes menu. If you experience this problem, close the window and open a new one.

From the point of view of accessibility options it is unfortunate that using the Henry James text through the noframes page removes the options to change text colour, reveal links and change text size, which for convenience of the majority of users are on the menu and act when the text is displayed in the appropriate frame. If these options were activated on the text page itself, users would probably have to scroll, sometimes considerable distances, to find them. This wouldn’t help accessibility challenged users much, either!

suggestions for accessibility challenged users

I agree that the following ideas are, by a long way, second best, but perhaps they are better than nothing?

  1. set your browser to override my style sheets: you will lose all the pretty features, but can apply your own settings for font size and link style
  2. use the noframe version: when first accessing an edition follow the link from the menu and then bookmark the noframe.htm page for future reference
  3. experiment with your browser JavaScript setting: with it turned off you will lose the status bar messages on links, but possibly the ‘title’ string will help, and it may assist with problems related to not having frames

My attitude to the whole question of web accessibility can be summed up in my long-held view that everyone is ‘abled’ in a different way but there is a core set of capabilities which one is entitled to assume in any ‘able bodied’ user, however every one is ‘disabled’ in unique ways (I sha’n’t tell you about my disablement) and there is no core set of abilities which one can assume about any dis-‘able bodied’ user. Therefore, for the utility of society as a whole, and while members of such a society should not gratuitously make things difficult for those of differing abilities, it is not incumbent upon us to design for a minimal set of abilities to the detriment of functionality.

To illustrate this point, as a pedestrian with long legs and a fast walk, I get fed up with having to slow down to avoid turning-over my ankle, and thus possibly becoming permanently disabled, on the bumpy pavements which are installed at road crossings, bus stops and other public thoroughfares for the benefit of the visually impaired. I hardly ever see anyone making obvious use of these facilities, although I agree that unless they are carrying a white stick it is difficult to tell what cues anyone is using to navigate, and I would love to discover some research on the number of additional trips and falls these bumps generate.

Adrian Dover