Accessibility is Not a Genre
Recently on one of the tech blogs I read from time-to-time I came across something worthy of a little constructive criticism (not one of the sites on my Links page by the way).
The weblog in question is written by a very competent designer and developer, and the post was about accessibility. The gist of the author’s comment was that while developing accessible web sites was of some importance to him personally, it was not a primary concern since he does not typically make web sites targeted at disabled people.
Now I happen to think, subject to my own limited but growing understanding of the technical aspects of accessibility, that the writer in question does in fact create quite accessible web sites, probably mostly through a commitment to standards-based design (but in the knowledge that such is also felicitous for accessibility). My beef, therefore, isn’t about the practice. It’s about the attitude.
Please permit me to digress for the next two paragraphs. One aspect of developing that has interested me since I started making web sites was the idea that they should be navigable by tools other than your standard visual web browser. Speech browsers, for example, verbalise the textual components of web documents, along with the annotations that accompany non-text objects when they are coded by accessibility- and standards-conscious developers. Other types of user agents assist by adjusting the properties of visual content (e.g. increasing contrast, magnifying elements). Yet others translate HTML into braille output.
All these different tools rely primarily on a single common thread — the underlying markup. One of the things you quickly learn as a developer, as I’ve already mentioned, is that you can make up a great deal of ground simply by building your sites with valid markup. It’s really easy. Firefox can be augmented with a handy tool that checks any page for validity with a few mouse clicks. And source code for pages developed using web standards looks nicer. The pages are easier to read. They typically “weigh” less. Even better, they are open to people using non-standard browsers, whether the web site or application in question is an online store, a blog, a news media site… the list goes on. In short, standards-based design makes parts of the web — in principle — much, much more available to everyone, as long as people have the technology to get online. Adopting such standards is a huge step in the direction of a universal Internet.
To return to my original point: the notion that there is such a thing as sites targeted at disabled people is misguided. (I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m saying that they are a drop in the ocean.) Moreover, it’s offensive because it presumes that people’s disabilities wholly circumscribe their fields of interest and their vocabularies of action. Put another way, this attitude understands disability as the only (conceivable) engaging topic for the people so labeled. Well, this is patently false. And please let me say that while I don’t assume that the author in question would identify with my characterisation, it is nevertheless its logical conclusion.
Tim Berners-Lee conceptualised the World Wide Web, quite unequivocally, as a universal information space. I believe that realising universality in any sphere of human social relations represents more of an ideological commitment than a practical possibility, but it is nevertheless a goal worth pursuing. And it’s not only one possible goal, happily produced as a side-effect of making web sites in a particular way… in the end it’s really the goal. It’s what the web was designed to do.