Webrichtlijnen (WCAG 1.0 Priority 2+) Accessibility in SharePoint 2007

Last Thursday I gave a presentation about accessibility in SharePoint 2007: the existing challenges and my approach to it. I have been invited by the Dutch Information Worker User Group to share my experience with other Dutch developers. Standing on the other side on such an event was my first time. I have to admit I did find it quite exciting and didn't really know what to expect of it - being a developer it's not really your daily job to speak for a group of over 40 people. For those of you who didn't have the chance to attend my presentation let me give you a brief overview of the contents.

Developing SharePoint 2007 solutions is quite different as soon as you take accessibility into consideration - especially if it's as highly leveled as the guidelines in the Netherlands. It's very important that you understand the way the whole platform works before you begin designing and developing an accessible solution. SharePoint 2007 and ASP.NET 2.0 both don't support it out of the box. It is possible though but quite challenging. Understanding the plumbing of both platforms will make your life way easier.

Choosing for an accessible Internet facing site built upon SharePoint 2007 has major impact on the design and development phases. You have to start with designing an accessible User Interface which will eventually make big part of the delivered User Experience. Then the difficult part comes: translating the drawings and sketches into HTML, CSS and JavaScript. At this stage you will be creating the solid baseline for the whole solution. Failing at delivering of accessible translation would make achieving the desired accessibility level impossible.

Another big challenge is the design and development of the required functionality such as custom controls and web parts. As a developer you have the full control of the generated output. On one hand you need to incorporate the pieces of the User Interface translation into the controls - as the code has been delivered at this stage it's not really difficult to do. Controlling the rendered output of the control is a way bigger challenge. You need to watch out that your control won't render a span around a div etc. In other words: as a developer you have to fully understand the accessibility standards - not only the Dutch Webrichtlijnen but WCAG 1.0 as well. Furthermore it's really helpful if you have at least a bit of experience with working with CSS. As I've mentioned: Development will never be the same...

Developing an accessible SharePoint 2007 solution is worth all the effort. You can achieve about 50% of the weight loss on each response and that's only the beginning. Other very important benefits are the interoperability of the data and improved querying by search spiders.

Accessibility in SharePoint 2007 is challenging. The worst part is: there aren't any solutions that will guide you during the development process. At this point of time you will have to do it on your own. Lately release of AKS 1.0 doesn't change anything. The delivered 12.1 version of the BlueBand master and the CSS files can give you a vague impression of an accessible site but you will still need to begin from scratch if your customer will ask for an accessible Internet facing site.

The good news is: it is doable. Last Thursday I have finished the beta 2 version of my own toolkit supporting accessibility in SharePoint 2007. While it helps a lot not only as it comes to accessibility but improves performance as well, it's still not the total solution you might've expected. Using an accessible UI translation and taking accessibility into consideration while developing custom controls will let you achieve the very nice score of 118 (125 is the maximal score on the Webrichtlijnen check). What about the remaining 7 points? That's why I needed the toolkit. As you get errors on the output rendered by the SharePoint 2007 rendering engine you don't have much choice than overriding it or cleaning it up.

At the end of the next week the first Webrichtlijnen accessible website we have created here at Imtech ICT Business Solutions will come on-line. Together with the site I will try to post a 'How we did it?' article about the process we went through and the challenges we have faced.

If you are interested in accessibility of SharePoint 2007 based solutions you can download my DIWUG presentation. It's partly in English and partly in Dutch. Let me know if the mix makes is impossible to follow: I will translate the sheets into English.


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