Accessibility is Not a Genre

June 28, 2006 / Recently on one of the tech blogs I read from time-to-time I came across something worthy of a little constructive criticism… 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.

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.

3 responses

  1. Dan

    I am also a fan of “bottom up” website design, although my days of working on code are fading into the past. I remember when CSS was the next big thing. I like neat code, and while I may not write my code in the conventional manner, I hope that my work is easy to follow and to understand.

    While I am completely supportive of your desire to ensure that your work is standards compliant and accessible, there will always be a case where your best efforts will fail. For example, there is not certainty that a screen reader will understand anything that you refer to in JavaScript.

    Having been involved in the development of a complex web app, I have seen that it is really easy for the decision makers to enforce a speed to market preference over a standards compliance. In an ideal world, it would not take additional resource to design, build or test perfect HTML, but it does. I respect the work that you have done and the choice in tools that you have made, but how much less time would you have spent on your projects if you just focused on making them work correctly in Internet Explorer for Windows (or Safari for Mac)? They wouldn’t work as you’d like on other platforms, but they might just work enough.

    I certainly hope that you are able to stick to your guns on this matter, but please don’t get too frustrated if you are working to a externally imposed timeline and they want the job done to show their immediate client.

    The real issue as I see it is that User Agents accept broken code and different agents react to the same code in different ways. Look at the IE/Mozilla CSS thing. I think that there should be more pressure on Browser developers to construct truly standards compliant UAs. I’ve read part of the W3C HTML specs and it didn’t appear ambigous to me. Lets face it, everyone has IE of some flavour – either to use as their main browser or to test for the “great unwashed” who do. Once IE demands standard compliance, then the web will be the Utopia that socially aware developers crave. Or at least if they handle HTML and CSS markup as per the W3C specs, then that’d be a huge start.

    July 2nd, 2006 at 7:16 pm #

  2. Ads

    I agree with 90% of your comments Dan. My post was not aimed at people who would prefer to author accessible sites but who are hampered by the demands of their job. It was directed at the notion that there is such a corner of the web whose sites are only relevant to disabled people, and conversely that disabled people are only interested in that corner of the web. People who can’t, for whatever reason, use a visual browser have just as much right to be able to access, for example, Target’s online store as short people or blondes. (Refer to the Target vs. NFB suit and ensuing debate on Derek Featherstone’s blog, amongst others for examples of the intransigent attitudes of developers who don’t see this as a fundamental social equity problem.)

    As for the time it takes to make your site accessible, yes, if you’re a large retailer that’s invested everything in table-based layouts, IE and image maps then it will cost you a lot of money to shift towards universal access. But some of the things that would enable disabled people to access web sites more readily are so trivial to achieve that the best answer as to why they are so commonly overlooked is ignorance, or perhaps outright bigotry. Judging by some of the comments made over the Target affair (which, to be clear, was not at all the subject of my original post, nor or course your own comments) there are a lot of web developers out there who think that if you can’t see you should just shut up and have a friend drive you to the bricks and mortar store.

    So in the immortal words of The Dude, and George H. W. Bush before him, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I know there are challenges, but I think it’s important that the web developer community does not dismiss them lightly.

    July 3rd, 2006 at 11:56 am #

  3. Dan Todd

    I agree. I think that this also ties into a conversation which we had here about design philosophy and how seperating your logic and your layout is simply good design.

    If a site was designed using this method, then it should be a trivial matter to change from an design based on “table-based layouts, IE and image maps” to one using, say, AJAX and CSS2.

    What I was try to say was that sometimes we do have to ignore our principles, and that is a really hard moment to deal with the first time that you have to do it. I really appreciate good design especially with respect to the visual elements and the logical elements of any application, but I have had to sell-out in order to get a job done on time.

    However, I think that you are right about developers neglecting special needs groups. I do not think that the majority of them do so deliberately, but do so because people at the coal face may not have had any life experiences which enable them to relate to these people on any level. The majority of web developers I have met are usually recent graduates of either uni or high school, but live, like myself, in that charmed world of middle class ignorance.
    Most of these developers look at the world differently to other people, and some just can’t visualise any kind of life experience outside of what they have personally experienced.

    On a side note, this is why I have been most motivated and influenced by people who are empathic and/or who make deliberate life choices which put them into a different sphere of experience that what their “meat and two veg” life would ordinarily have in store for them. One particularly inspiring person has spent a significant amount of time in the very alien worlds of Japan and the Ivy League.

    Keeping in mind the developers limited life experiences, it surely follows that the producers of major user agents are morally obliged to improving the compliance to standards so that all groups can enjoy the benefits of the electronic age. I imagine that they should be responsible for this in the same way that car manufacturers are responsible for passenger safety. If they was no responsibility or obligation, then our vehicles will still have steel dashboards and lap belts.

    It seems that the people with the most to gain from this brave new world are the ones that are the most left out of it. I find it absolutely repulsive that Bill Gates can retire from his position in Microsoft so that he can spend more time on his philantrophic charity and leave such an obvious method of enriching the lives of many so poorly execcuted. Lets just hope that his aid projects are more complete.

    What can I do about it? I think that I can take the same tack as yourself and do what I can, whenever I can to use, develop and plan for standards compliant, accessible code. I can also put my support behind the user agents that are the most standards compliant and accessible. I can also make uninformed comment on other people’s blogs.

    July 5th, 2006 at 9:11 pm #

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