Let’s talk about accessibility

Published August 25, 2006. Filed under: Accessibility.

The other day, Jeff posted some thoughts about accessibility which were, for the most part, well-received. Some people apparently didn’t get the message, though, and went after him in the comments, so he had to post a follow-up clarifying that, no, he’s not an evil corporate monster who hates handicapped people.

Jeff’s first post was somewhat kicked off by Roger Johansson’s post on Monday, which had comments that got so bad he had to close them for a while, then re-open them with a note:

Comments are open again. You are free to disagree with my personal opinion on this matter. However, do keep it polite and constructive. Name-calling, trolling, and personal attacks will not be tolerated.

When looking at some of the nastier comments left for Jeff and Roger, I wonder: what the hell is wrong with these people? Why can’t we have real discussions about accessibility?

Welcome to Accessibility Club

The first rule of Accessibility Club is: talk about accessibility. John Foliot probably thought he was being oh-so-funny when he pointed out some unescaped ampersands in Jeff’s HTML, but really he was just making himself look like an asshole. What do ampersands have to do with accessibility? Absolutely nothing, as he even admitted in his comment, so leave off it and actually talk about accessibility.

The second rule of Accessibility Club is: talk about accessibility. I repeat myself here because this bears repeating. For example: making petty swipes about designers “painting their pretty pictures” has absolutely nothing to do with accessibility, and just cements your place in the asshole camp. Yeah, John, I’m talking about you again.

The third rule of Accessibility Club is: leave the spin at home. If someone says something you don’t agree with, building a straw man that’s easier to attack isn’t going to win you the argument. Grant Broome, this one’s for you.

The fourth rule of Accessibility Club is: Accessibility Club is not Fight Club. Now, there are people in this world who don’t honestly care about accessibility, and yelling at them isn’t going to change their minds. Those people just need to be kicked in the balls.

But there are people in this world who do care about accessibility, even if they’re not always able to do everything you, personally, would like them to do. Yelling at them isn’t going to make them start doing the things you want them to do, and runs a real risk of alienating them entirely. People who are making good faith efforts but suffering under real-world constraints are not your enemies.

What accessibility is not

Now that we’ve covered the ground rules of discussion, let’s take a look at a few important concepts which need to be kept in mind while we talk about accessibility:

I would trust that these things are obvious, but repeated experience has taught me that such trust would be misplaced.

What accessibility is

And now the flip side:

With Jeff’s posts that last one seems to be where the controversy centers, so let’s look at a couple of examples:

And just to hammer it home, because I know there are people who will ignore the rules of Accessibility Club and try to shove words into my mouth: when I say it “depends on the resources you have available”, that doesn’t mean “it’s OK not to care about it”. That doesn’t mean “don’t worry about it”. That means “it depends on the resources you have available”. For example, if you’ve got transcripts for your videos or if you’ve got the ability to produce them, and you know it would provide a significant accessibility benefit for some of your site’s users, then you should provide transcripts. But if you don’t have them and if producing them would be prohibitively expensive, then don’t provide them, and focus your resources where you know they can do good. In general, I think it’s better to reach the people you can reach than to reach nobody at all.

Closing thoughts

Web accessibility is a deep and complex subject, and — pardon the pun — not always a very accessible one. There are lots of things which can impair someone’s use of the web, in lots of different ways, and some are more common than others. A lot of accessibility guidelines have been propagated over the years based on anecdotal evidence or on hypothetical considerations (usability, which is arguably a superset of accessibility, suffers from the same problem). What solid research there is on the topic can be hard to find at times, and hard to understand when you do find it. Many of the laws regarding web accessibility are horrendously vague. And no matter how hard you try to get it right, there’s probably going to be an asshole somewhere who will be all too happy to crucify you over a particular trade-off you decided not to make.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up. It means we should be willing to adapt, willing to share what we know in a civilized manner, willing to make the trade-offs we can afford to make, willing to ignore the inevitable rogue assholes and, above all, willing to learn.