The Great Accessibility Camp-Out

Posted October 1st, 2006 by Mike Cherim

Since the dawn of Internet time the meaning of web accessibility has sparked some minor wars. We hope to change that. We aren’t trying to clear up the disparity of meaning, but we hope to put an end to the random battles as they are, like most skirmishes, senseless.

Scope

Web accessibility is like a large mountain on which the summit cannot be reached in a day. It must be broken down into camps from which we continue the journey to the top. Somewhere along the way, the journey to accessibility has been divided into two primary camps: The “accessibility is for everyone” camp the “accessibility is for people with disabilities” camp. Using terminology inspired by the article, The Usefulness of Accessibility Audits, by Jack Pickard, we shall refer to these camps as Camp 1 and Camp 2, respectively.

In this article — because of the occasional fighting — Gez Lemon and Mike Cherim will give their view as they see it from their camp. They aren’t going to try to change anyone’s mind, and while the two men agree to disagree, they know they share the climb to the same summit and can get along while doing so. Here’s how they view web accessibility from their respective camps, the rest is up to you:

Camp 1

As witnessed in other articles I’ve seen about this subject, there does indeed seem to be a bit of a war raging on. What puzzles me is why it continues. From my “Accessibility is for everyone” camp, the way I see it is that we share a common goal: To make the web more accessible. In my mind this means accessible to all users. I would add that by accessible I mean the disabled and not-disabled alike, and in a way that’s what I mean, but I’m going to veer away from that terminology. From my particular rocky out-cropping on Mt. Accessibility I cannot view a web disability as solely being a physical or mental inability. I’m compelled to also include users with slow connections, old monitors, legacy equipment, and anything that puts a barrier between the user and the content they seek, not just poor eyesight or blindness, corrupt motor skills, or dyslexia, to name but a few.

This in no way means those who reside in my camp choose to forgo support for users with handicaps in the physical or mental sense. On the contrary, we certainly mean to include those users by simply choosing to also broaden the definition of what a web or technology disability is. If you look in the dictionary the primary meaning of accessibility, paraphrased, includes everyone. Whereas a secondary meaning, the one that is inclusive of the word technology, again paraphrased, includes meeting the needs of those with a physical or mental disability. By choosing the first meaning of the word I embrace its wider sense.

The word disability, as it’s defined, also paraphrased, is a physical or mental impairment. A handicap. But like accessibility, the word handicap is far reaching and can encompass many things. To paraphrase one of its first meanings, it is a condition of incapacity or being incapable. It is not up to me to ask why one is incapable, but rather to simply try to change that to a state of capability.

In a sense those who continue the journey from Camp 1 treat the word accessibility in a way similar to how the W3C answers the question of why the term “user agent” is used everywhere instead of “browser,” as follows:

“Although browsers are indeed important users of HTML and XHTML, there are other programs and systems that read those documents. Search engines for instance read documents, but are not browsers. By using the term ‘user agent’ we are trying to remind people of the difference.” –W3C

All of this boils down to an issue of semantics, but those in Camp 1 say that this need not be so. Camp 1 reaches out beyond those boundaries. This does not mean that a web developer who makes a web page of a reasonable size to meet the needs of dial-up users has made an “accessible” web page, that simply isn’t so, but rather we state that those users should be included as well. We tend not to dwell on the terminology used, yet we’re not trying to dilute meaning. Simply put, we feel we’re all on the same team, climbing the same mountain, trying to achieve the same things. Call it accessibility or call it universality, we simply mean everyone, regardless of disability.

Camp 2

I hold the more traditional view that web accessibility is about ensuring that people with disabilities are not discriminated against. I would love to live in a world where it wasn’t necessary to tell people that discriminatory behaviour is wrong, but as much as I generally have faith in the human race, it is necessary to accept that we share the planet with uncaring and/or ignorant people.

I must be honest and confess that to a certain extent, I’ve been oblivious to the war about the meaning of web accessibility. I’ve seen the occasional battle on message boards where people have ended up debating whether the word “accessibility” should be interpreted literally from its dictionary definition, and have even been attacked myself for daring to state my personal opinion is that web accessibility is about ensuring that people with disabilities are treated equally. I think it’s fair to say that most people that understand web accessibility hold the traditional view that it’s about ensuring that people with disabilities are not discriminated against.

The battles that I have witnessed have not been detrimental to web accessibility (other than trivialising web accessibility), regardless of the side the person arguing is representing. Often, it’s more about bruised egos in that neither side wants to be wrong. It’s easy to understand how those that argue that web accessibility isn’t just about people with disabilities, as web accessibility practices do tend to benefit everyone and not just those with disabilities, but this is more of a side-effect rather than the primary intention. For example, well structured documents enable people using assistive technology to better understand and navigate the document; a well structured document also enables search engines to better categorise and index the page. That doesn’t mean that accessibility is about improving search engine rankings, even though it’s highly likely that following accessibility advice will improve search engine rankings; that is just a side-effect, rather than the primary intention.

Although the notion of software accessibility pre-dates the web, web accessibility originated with the W3C, so it is useful to understand how this all fits together from the W3C’s perspective. The general goal of the W3C is to make the Web available to everyone, regardless of the device, platform, network, culture, geographic location, or physical or mental ability of those using it. Collectively, these goals are referred to as universality. To ensure these goals are met, the W3C has many initiatives, such as the Internationalisation (I18n) Activity, the Device Independence Group, and the Web Accessibility Initiative. The WAI’s role is to ensure that the web is accessible to people with disabilities:

“The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) works with organizations around the world to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.” –WAI

The danger of distorting the meaning of web accessibility is that discussions can quickly degenerate to pandering to people’s whims, rather than real issues that affect people with disabilities. For example, if someone argues that a page that is rich in graphics increases the page weight to an unreasonable amount, and objects to this under the name of accessibility rather than being a connectivity issue, it adds to people’s perceptions that accessibility hinders attractive designs; not to mention that the graphics themselves could actually aid accessibility by facilitating comprehension, rather than hinder it.

For the most part, I would say that those that advocate that accessibility is more than just about people with disabilities are well-intentioned people that would do the right thing when faced with a scenario where people with disabilities would be disadvantaged. As much as I generally have faith in the human race to do the right thing, my experiences tell me that it would be foolish to rely on it. Good intentions are good intentions, but have the unfortunate side-effect of diluting the message of what web accessibility is really about. I encounter people on a daily basis that want to avoid addressing accessibility issues, sometimes for reasons that I do not understand, but usually under the name of marketing.

Personally, I don’t care if someone’s definition of accessibility means that web content must be available to people with purple shoes, although I wouldn’t publicly support that definition. If people with purple shoes are considered more important than those with disabilities, then I would object to that definition. My opinion is that accessibility is about ensuring that people with disabilities do not encounter barriers through things that they cannot readily change. As developers, we all understand the importance of universality to reach and serve the widest possible audience; that is our goal — a goal that I fully support, and whilst accessibility is an important part of reaching that goal, accessibility is by far the most important aspect of universality.

Summary

There isn’t a summary. That is hopefully the end of the story. If the war rages on it is because you allow it to or want it to. The rest is up to you as was mentioned in the scope of this article.

This article is a collaboration between Gez Lemon and Mike Cherim

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