A new resource on disability rights

A fast-growing library, and the web accessibility challenges in making it.
Old leather books framed by a wooden shelf. The books have brown spines, with titles worn away.
An online database of disability news

Hello Debriefers,

I'm happy to share something I've been brewing since the start of the year: a new online home for Disability Debrief. You can now find the newsletter on www.disabilitydebrief.org.

It's not just the newsletter that's there. You can browse a database of disability news that's made of the gazillion links I've shared on the Debrief this year.

Making this took me on a crash course about webpage accessibility. Some things I could fix, but there's still gaps. I explore below some of the practical challenges that mean webpages aren't as usable as they should be.

Housekeeping: These emails are now sent by a different platform. Hopefully, you get this email like before, and nothing needs to be done. If you don't see this email then, err, I telepathically advise you to check spam and promotions inboxes.

About the newsletter: If you haven't already, sign-up to get these mails. Disability Debrief is supported by readers and Sightsavers.

A fast-growing library

Find the news you need

Since the start of 2022, all the news updates on the Debrief have been powered by a database that organizes the links I'm curating. The new Debrief website allows you to use that database too, browsing disability news on 50+ subjects and a 100+ countries.

You can explore by whatever subject you're interested in. Accessibility, say, or disability-inclusion in elections around the world, and even space exploration. These and the other subjects I share news about now have dedicated pages, and they'll be automagically updated with each news update I do.

The same goes for countries. You might want to see the extensive collection of links I've shared on Ukraine, or quite substantial collections on Bangladesh and Kenya. This covers over a hundred places, including some I needed to look up, like the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Many of them, like that territory, only have an update or two, so there's plenty of room to grow.

Please definitely absolutely let me know if and how you use this. There are a bunch of ways it can be improved – like highlighting key resources, developing filters to search pages, and more. Which of these to prioritize depends on what I hear from y'all.

What the numbers say about the news

If you work on disability issues, you'll hear the lament, and perhaps make it yourself, that we don't have enough information or evidence. But there is quite a bit we do have, and we're not always using it. In 2022 alone, my efforts at curating information have brought together over 1400+ links to news and resources across all areas of the world and social life. There's more coming out every day.

Is “international” news mainly from the US and UK? This has been a concern of mine since starting the newsletter. I get news by following folk from these countries, and I'm primarily working in English. The database lets me know how I'm doing.

In the news I've curated:

  • 28% is “international”. This has its own biases, of course.
  • 26% is from the next two countries: United States (14%) and Ukraine (11%).
  • 25% is from the next eight countries: UK (7%), Australia (4%), Europe as a region (3.5%), and India, Canada, New Zealand, Kenya and Bangladesh (all between 2-3% each).
  • 21% is from the next 94 countries.

It's definitely a sad sign of 2022 that Ukraine is so highly-placed. Apart from that I'm relieved that the US and UK between them make up less than 25% of the news, as I'd worried it might be more. I'm glad that the top ten countries have a mixture of rich and less rich countries. Trying to get more disability news from Global South countries is definitely one of my goals.

A library made with your support

Setting this up needed a large part of the last few weeks and several days at the beginning of this year. I couldn't have put this time in without the support from the Debrief community.

There are new ways to support further growth. In addition to the previous option of custom donations, the new platform allows readers to make monthly or annual subscriptions. Support is on a pay-as-you-can basis, and all content will always be free for everyone.

If you use this for work, please check whether your work can pay. (As they would for other educational or information services they use.) See more about this on institutional support.

On that note, I welcome – and thank – Light for the World for just such an organisational subscription. They're a disability and development NGO who I've been lucky to work with previously.

Practical challenges of web accessibility

The last few weeks have seen me take a crash course on web accessibility. We reviewed, tested, and improved. But it's still not perfect: see the accessibility statement for details. Here I'll tell you how I crashed into the platforms that make the web what it is today.

Please let me know if you have any accessibility challenges using the site or the newsletter, and if there's anything I can improve in the experience.

Setting out on an accessibility adventure

It's always important to understand accessibility broadly, and it applies to the content itself as well as the interface. For the content, there are long-standing accessibility issues with what I write: these newsletters have a lot of dense information, it's only in English, and they might be very long.

But why should it be hard to make the interface of the website itself accessible? I don't have complex audiovisual media to provide in multiple formats. I just need to make sure it follows the established standards and we should be good to go.

Finding a home, and hoping

Most of us don't code websites by ourselves anymore. We find a platform that can make things simple for us and let them take care of things.

In the emerging growth of online newsletter writing, there are a few well-known choices: Substack (which I was on), Ghost, (which I've moved to) and Revue. Their business is making things easier for us writers, so we can focus on the content.

So far so simple. I liked the look of Ghost because they use open-source software and everything is, in theory, customizable. So I asked them if their themes were accessible. (“Themes” structure website design and layout).

They couldn't tell me. They referred me to the accessibility guidelines and said that if themes weren't accessible, I could change them. This is a bit like a car rental agency saying they don't know if their car has airbags, but here are the airbag standards, and if you want you can put them in as you drive.

Someone else made the bed: I chose to lie down

I definitely had a choice here. I could have gone to, say, hosting on Wordpress, which has more accessible themes by default. I didn't do that, because I would have had the headaches of connecting the newsletter function. And, even on Wordpress, a guide to accessibility gives credit to default accessibility but notes that even then “it's more than just install and go”.

I set off with Ghost and just needed to check how accessible things were. There are automated tools to help with this, but for deeper checks you need to understand more about web accessibility and do user testing.

With a lot of help from Áine, we reviewed the site accessibility. This took some hilarious turns, including suddenly discovering the site had a dark mode and links were unreadable in it. One turn in particular illustrates some of the practices that make the web unnecessarily inaccessible.

Hamburger or nothingburger?

We thought things were going in a good direction and then it turned out the navigation menu wasn't visible to a screen reader on a mobile phone. Hard to check the accessibility of something so inaccessible it doesn't show up at all.

Off I went into the theme's styling and scripting to find what should have been a structural feature. The menu was calling itself a “burger”, which was making me hangry until I learned the tech term for this type of menu is “hamburger menu”. (The horizontal lines that style it “look like a burger”). It turns out they are a frequent source of accessibility bad practice.

Good web accessibility is based on people using correct html to indicate page structure, so that any tool rendering it to a user knows what's what. The theme I was using, however, made the burger menu button without using the html code for button. This is such a frequent bad practice that there is guidance on how to retrofit the features the correct html could have had in the first place.

So far in this journey we have an organization not knowing if their own code is accessible, and coders not knowing who can eat their hamburgers. But web accessibility challenges go deeper.

It's not just the food, it's how you cook it

You don't just use one platform. The web works by connecting stuff together. Each time you do this you need to check the accessibility. Even on this simple website, I have a comments plug-in and a search bar for advanced search. Both of these have issues. Perhaps worst is that the comments plug-in shows the thread of conversation in a solely visual way, and so if you're using a screenreader you won't know what is a reply to what.

How does the hamburger get served? Behind the themes are Content Management Systems (CMS) that store the information the website uses. The Ghost CMS allows you to store the image you put on the front-page of your website. It also allows you to store the profile pictures of authors. Wonderful. Does it allow you store the alternate text necessary to describe these to people that can't see the images? No, it does not.

Retrofitting. In a very similar dynamic to accessibility of physical infrastructure, post-hoc solutions are often a bit difficult and not very good. I got around the lack of alternate text in the CMS through some awkward kludges. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do this for avatars in the comments section.

Accessibility helps you do it better. This accessibility truism is evident here too. As well as the coders who could have used the html appropriate for what they were doing, there were points that accessibility improved my own coding. Organizing the presentation of information into more logical sections helped/forced me to improve the messy coding in the back-end of the news database.

All of this without even mentioning the interface for authors. We've been so busy our enjoying our headaches with the issues above that we've saved for another day the pleasure of looking at accessibility of the Ghost interface for site admin and writing posts. We're not going in with high expectations: the themes weren't great, and the dashboard and editor are more complicated to do right.

A need for healing

This experience leads me to a sad, albeit perhaps not surprising, conclusion. Modern websites have much worse digital accessibility than the physical accessibility we see in modern buildings.

A recent review of business websites found shocking gaps. Companies that have made commitments on disability inclusion (through membership of Valuable 500) were doing no better than the Fortune 500 company average. Slightly worse, in fact. Retail organizations – many of which would ensure basic physical accessibility in their stores – do not offer this on their websites.

Another recent review hits closer to home. It looked at whether websites about accessibility are accessible themselves. The title shows the result: “Accessibility Guru, heal thy site.” I am a bit worried about this webpage would be rated by that software.

In the meantime I can try to help with the healing. I'll be writing up the technical details of the accessibility gaps for those that make the tools the website uses. I hope that sharing the recipe for better hamburgers will make a difference in our diet. I'll let you know.

Technical specs

The website is hosted by Ghost. I am using an adapted version of the Dawn Theme. Comments are by Cove.

The news database is something I rolled myself. Links are stored in an SQLite database and I wrote Python scripts for input and output. These produce the format you've seen in the newsletter and also now what's in the online library.


The photo of old books is by Jeff Smith on Unsplash.  

Special credit to Áine Kelly-Costello for guiding me on my web accessibility crash course, doing testing with screen readers, and for plenty of troubleshooting. Sarah at Ghost Support was very good at answering my many many queries about Ghost.

I'm lucky to have friends who could advise me on setting things up. Thanks, among others, to Davey Jose, Dody Gunawinata, and Tom Ellis. Thanks also to Father Fremlin for testing usability.

I always appreciate friends who give me advice on developing the Debrief. Among many many others, thanks again to James Strachan for keeping things sensible, and to Kathy Guernsey and Catherine Hyde-Townsend for advice on the news database.

The Debrief Library is the fruit of work done over these years. The news in the database comes in particular from news updates supported by Center for Inclusive Policy.

Thanks to readers and Sightsavers for ongoing support to the Debrief, and to Tan Kuan Aw for the many illustrations that make the site Debrief more beautiful.