Kill Accessibility


Stairways to nowhere

Let’s get some reality on the web accessibility debate.

We all know about WCAG 1, we have all at least had a look at the associated checklists.  If you are lucky you may have glanced at WCAG 2.

We all have been developing and designing our sites with semantic content, in compliance with W3C guidelines, using progressive enhancement for the interactive components, unobtrusive Javascript, and graceful degradation of the pages for legacy browsers.   Maybe used some of the attributes of ARIA. Sure that’s a no brainer.

We know that doing this will solve most of the accessibility issues.

So much so that one would think that the cause for accessibility and universal design was over.  Right?

No – wrong.

We are not Assistive Technology users

If we set aside the fact that we still have people in Australia building non standards based sites with tables for layout and inline javascript.

We as a community (edit – able bodied) in general are just paying lip service to accessibility.  We have become complacent. We are engaging in a mindless tokenistic effort with accessibility.  Do we really care…

Often the real answer is No.  At least now we are being honest.

Think about it when was the last time you included a round of accessibility testing in a quote.   Or for that matter when was the last time you even considered it, or even raised the topic.

To often if the client does bring up accessibility in early discussions, we will just ignore it.  Pretend it isn’t an issue.

Even government agencies, local, state and federally, have been dodging accessibility issues.  I have seen it personally, straight faced lies, or statements of avoidance veiled in bureaucratic misunderstanding.   The mindless ticking off on the WCAG 1 checklist, just to get the KPI achieved, too often by a junior staff member who doesn’t really have any interest in accessibility or the like anyway.

This has to stop.

Yes some of us are doing something, but in reality is it enough.

Are we calling our fellow peers to task when the accessibility on their web site is just not up to scratch?  We used to do this with  web standards.  Why not accessibility?

Maybe we need to remind people that ensuring a web site is accessible in Australia is a legal requirement.

Losing our way.

Still with accessibility we have gone very quiet.  Even silent.  Why?

Simple we have become our clients, we are now just playing the same lip service, tokenism game that our clients are often playing.   Yes in public we (they) will state that we care about accessibility.   But in reality we (edit – as able bodied designers and developers) don’t have to use assistive technology (AT), we don’t have a disability, in general we can see and use the web as it was intended.  We are a million miles from the practical world of using AT.

The old UX catch call is never truer here – we are not the users.   The disparity between us and the people we are really working for, with accessibility, is sometimes just too great for us to even get a idea of what it is like, no matter how many videos of people using assitive technology we see.

Why we are doing nothing.

In a lot of cases we have the tools with the standard issue Web Technology to make the entire web accessible. We have had them for over 4 years now.  Still a lot of sites fail all but a basic Jaws reading test.  Why?

We know why, we just don’t talk about it, it’s the elephant in the room:

  • Money

    Money is the primary issue.  It’s always  comes down to money, it costs for testing, it costs for recruiting, it costs to find the best solution.

  • No ROI

    From the clients view there is a perception that there is no return on investment.  The AT audience is just too small and they are seen as being just on welfare and not having any disposable income at all.

  • Lack of Skills

    There is a lack of skills or documented solutions for all but the common accessibility issues.  Yes lots of people around the world have found solutions to most of the problems.   However if you want to solve it locally you have to reinvent the solution again or call in an overseas or interstate high paid consultant.

  • Social Value

    In reality there is no socially inspired public relations value in accessibility.  A business can be seen to get more value out of sponsoring a guide dog than making their web site accessible.

  • Why Bother

    Although the Australia Human Rights Commission hasn’t been sitting on it’s hands on these issues. There is a general public and web industry perception that they have. So if the legislator isn’t bothered with enforcing compliance why should anyone else care.

  • Lack of Tools

    There is no sure-fire tool that we can automatically measure accessibility of a site.  It takes real testing and a compliance checklist to ensure a site is accessibility to a wide spectrum of the community.   It’s much easier to just lie on the checklist, after all who is going to check.  Yes I have seen this being done time after time.

What can we do.

It’s a sad really.  In a way we shouldn’t have even got to this state.

It’s as if the hard battle for accessibility has only been won on the popularist visually impaired front.  Leaving the cognitive, motor control, hearing and the like issues out in the cold.

Now I don’t have a solution, however this is something I have been thinking about a great deal.

I’m certain what every we have to do, isn’t going to be one simple solution.  On a side note: don’t look to HMTL5, that’s not going to be the magical panacea.  I except  the answer will be in a multiple pronged approach:

  • Kill off Accessibility

    In some ways even considering accessibility as a separate item is the wrong approach. We really need to be considering the ideals of universal design, in which everything is designed for everyone.   Let’s just for a minute forget about accessibility as a separate issue. We need to design and develop for people using AT just like we do for any other usability issue.  This is where  Inclusive Design comes in.

  • No more checklists

    Lets be honest the WCAG checklists  don’t work. We don’t have HTML or CSS checklists.   Why should we have accessibility ones.   Checklists are just too open to management and insecure web team members abusing them and warping the real results.  After all who is going to challenge or randomly audit them – senior management, I don’t think so.

  • Merge the Guidelines

    Over time it would be idea to merge WCAG in the core of HTML and CSS guidelines such that it is just second nature to the recommended implementation examples with HTML or CSS.   Okay this is a really long term solution considering we are just getting into HTML5.

  • Ninja Accessibility

    Being realistic we aren’t going to get all those ideas of the ground tomorrow.  However we can take advantage of the aging baby boomer population in the west.  This generation of older adults, will start to have a lot of leverage and will also start to encounter  a number of minor web accessibility issues.  Via overcoming these issues by stealth, ninja like, one is able to introduce an inclusive design mind set to the client, via an area they can relate to.

  • Accessibility Patterns

    This is one that I touched on above.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a centralised library of accessibility solutions, a bit like a UI pattern library like Yahoo User Interface Library or  the Yahoo Design Pattern Library.  That way designers and developers could just look for a solution to a problem or just consider the overall UI recommended in terms of an inclusive design.    Either way it would be a win, win situation.

    Now there are lots of very smart accessibility design practitioners across the world.  I know a good number of them have encountered most of the common issues and then some more.  Some have published these issues and the work arounds as they discover them.  Some have just listed the issue and test results, leaving the solution as a guarded revenue stream.  And others are just too busy to really contribute.

    We need to harness this information and store it somewhere centrally.   As a community resource.   Think about it, think about the differences that developmental patterns and UI design patterns have made to the developmental process. No more reinventing the wheel (or widget) .  They have allowed the adoption of a landscape where good practices are now the norm.

    What we need to do is foster the accessibility community to build accessibility patterns as solutions to common problems.   Such that any designer or developer can drop the solution in place and be confident of the out come.   Yes this does need some altruistic contributions back to the community by accessibility solution specialists.  However just consider the overall result in the longer term.

In a way I have dream that in the next five years we can turn this around and have  accessibility issues approached in the same way we now do for web standards.

However in order to do this we need to start today, and make real changes in what we do.

Are you with me!

This article is based around the talk Kill Accessibility presented at Perth BarCamp4, April 2010. The slidedeck is available on Slideshare or below:

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