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Dear John

Published: September 20, 2006. Filed under: Accessibility.

I don’t really know where I should begin, John. Maybe I could start with your unnecessary brutality over on Jeff’s blog. Maybe I could start with the rather nasty screed you left for me today. There are other things you’ve said that I could dig up and go through, but that’s not really where I should begin.

So let me start with my to-do list. There are about fifty things on it right now; in fact, there are pretty much always about fifty things on my to-do list. Most of my co-workers have lists that are just as long, and often longer. My boss has actually progressed beyond the point where he could even have a manageable to-do list; for Christmas, I’m thinking about getting him one of those tickers you see in stock exchanges.

In short, that’s a lot of stuff that needs to get done.

And out of all of those things that need to get done, unescaped ampersands don’t get a really high priority. We have a million or so pieces of content and more being added every day, across a dozen or more sites. We have thousands upon thousands of lines of code that are always changing and evolving. We have multiple news operations to coordinate web-based workflow for, and a fair number of the people in that workflow have been doing the news with typewriters and legal pads for longer than I’ve been alive; making it easy for them to transition to using the web is nothing short of a monumental task.

So as much as it pains my inner pedant, those ampersands aren’t even a blip on my radar.

What is on my radar is the fact that, even though we have the necessary metadata on all those pieces of content, we have snippets of code buried somewhere deep within the system that aren’t always outputting alt text. What is on my radar is the fact that I’ve written and will continue to write boatloads of JavaScript, and that every single line of it needs to degrade gracefully or enhance progressively. What is on my radar is that there are a ton of things we could do better than we’re doing now, and that I can help ensure we get better at them.

So… ampersands? Fuck the ampersands; I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

And, John, so do you. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative is, by most accounts I’ve read, a train wreck playing out in slow motion. Governments are adopting accessibility recommendations — verbatim — as law when those recommendations are vague, confusing, outdated and sometimes just plain broken. There are still people out there who think the alt attribute is for displaying a little tooltip when you hover over an image.

These are the things that ought to be on your radar, John. These are the big fish in need of frying, and you can help toss them into the pan.

A little while back, one of those uppity “designer” types posted a blog entry where he wondered aloud about the division of labor in the accessibility world — how much of it falls on the people who make the web pages, and how much of it falls on the people who make the web browsers? And how much — and this is the one that really blew some folks’ stacks — falls on the people who browse the web? I don’t complain about the fact that my browsing experience is better when I put on a pair of lenses so powerful I could, in a wilderness survival situation, use them to start fires. In much the same way, I don’t complain when the state of Kansas demands that I put those lenses on before I get behind the wheel of a car.

That discussion should have been on your radar, and apparently it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Because, John, you used that discussion for no other purpose than to be a dick in public, and to rub some folks’ noses in how much better you are at accessibility than all of them.

John, you’ve got better things to do with your time than that. You’ve got more important things to do with your time than that. A few days after that discussion went south, I wrote that people who are making good-faith efforts but struggling under real-world constraints are not your enemies, but you don’t seem to have gotten that. You seem to be so obsessed with putting those damn designers in their place that you’ve lost sight of how many of them want the same things you do.

And that’s sad, because up until a few weeks ago I thought you were a pretty cool guy. You’d put together some great resources for people who wanted to improve the accessibility of the sites they worked on, and you’d done it in a pretty accessible way, which is no small feat.

So John, much as I’d love to savage you in comment threads on various people’s sites, much as I’d love to pick your posts apart for fallacies and inaccuracies, I’m not going to. I’m just going to ask you to do what I did tonight when I got home from work: step outside for a moment, take a deep breath of the fresh air, and remember what we’re trying to do here. I say “we” because you and I, and Jeff Croft and a whole bunch of other people like us, aren’t really on different sides; I believe that the Web is an incredibly powerful medium, and that it should be open to absolutely everybody who wants in on it. And so do you. And so do they.

So turn off your flamethrower, purge all that bile you’ve been spewing at the big bad designers, and get your head back in the game. There are a hell of a lot of things on your to-do list, and bickering with people who share your goals should not be one of them.