October 5, 2006

accessibility - prise deux

catherine @ 5:01 pm

Once again, people are getting into what some are now calling the “accessibility wars”. This is quite unfortunate of course because after all, we are supposed to be on the same side ; we should be fighting for something, not over something. So once again, because I care about this issue and feel that all of this is doing more harm than good, I will reiterate in the clearest manner possible the difference between the basic concepts involved. I apologise in advance for the quality of my English in this post ; I usually spend days and days revising my texts but I wanted to get this out as soon as possible and move on.

The semantics surrounding accessibility is something I have studied for quite a while now. And I do not mean I have just read a couple of articles or blog posts and subsequently made up my mind. I mean I have scoured the Web and any other related material I could get my hands on with my albeit limited means and poured over these resources for months at a time to form my opinions. I have considered concepts of accessibility and/or universality not only in the field of Web development but also barrier-free architecture, spatial and information sciences. I have thought about it from different perspectives, political, social and technical. I have taken into account the context in which advancements concerning disability issues have taken place, traditional concepts and related initiatives and outcomes.

So I am well aware that it is hard enough getting people from outside of the Web development and accessibility fields to agree on this concept or sometimes, to even acknowledge that persons with disabilities are involved. But if we can not agree amongst ourselves about what we mean, then we can difficultly hope, collectively or individually, to adequately serve the needs and interests we claim to represent or respond to and we are condemned to rehash this ad vitam aeternam. And while I feel discussion and different points of view are usually a good thing and can contribute to a better understanding and, in some cases, evolution of issues, there comes a point where it does not get us anywhere and it is time to move on to more constructive endeavours.

accessibility and universal access

So, to put it simply :

Accessibility is related to how usable a resource is for persons with disabilities, regardless of the type of impairment or the means to overcome or compensate for that impairment. While there are different formulations of this, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is an expert source on this subject, explains quite adequately that :

“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web.”

Now I know the WAI goes on about additional benefits to the elderly and other populations but I will get to that later. The point here is that persons with disabilities are the target.

Universal access (or universality) is an ensemble of conditions that relate to : availability, connectivity, interoperability, affordability, mobility, culture, etc., and accessibility (some will also add knowledge and training as well as gender issues and as society evolves, it is easy to predict that new considerations or interests are likely to be added to this list).

This is much in line with how the W3C, an expert source on pretty much everything to do with Web development, defines access for all or more precisely the “Web for Everyone” (what they used to call “universal access”). Indeed, their mission statement indicates that :

“The social value of the Web is that it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C’s primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability.”

And they go on to explain that :

W3C continues to expand its real investment in initiatives that directly support the expansion of Web technologies and their benefits into the developing world. Work in areas like Web accessibility, internationalization, device independence, and mobile Web are particularly important as we work toward a Web for Everyone.”

So while there are certain areas that the W3C does not get directly involved in, such as affordability, basic educational prerequisites or gender concerns (which are handled by other organisations involved in digital divide issues), what they are basically saying is that there are distinct conditions to universal access and that they have set up programmes in areas related to Web development in order to fulfill these conditions. And as far as I know, nowhere does the W3C say that universality and accessibility are equivalent concepts.

I refer to definitions or explanations from within the W3C because I think they do a pretty good job of summing things up and they are relevant to our field. Now you may not want to recognise what the W3C or WAI (or many others for that matter) have to say about this. You may want to hold on to your gawd given right to use whatever meaning you want. But that does not necessarily make you right and it does not mean you are necessarily helping things. And the fact remains they did not come up with this on their own. They do not work in a vacuum. They collaborate with many, many people and organisations of various interests from all over the world. If we consider their work model, it is clear that they take what is already out there into account. I am certainly not saying they are always right but that they usually think very long and hard about things. They usually consider the big picture and all the potential ramifications before they make up their mind about anything.

auxiliary benefits of accessibility

Much as in the area of barrier-free architecture, Web accessibility does, for various technical reasons, represent certain secondary or additional benefits that everyone can take advantage of. Indeed, without going through the whole list, Web accessibility can make it easier to access Web pages from a mobile phone or other devices. It can help pages load faster, it can enhance the general usability of a Web site, it can improve page ranking, etc., etc. And that is great really but let us remember that a lot of accessibility requirements have absolutely no effect on persons without disabilities and this is where a position stating that “accessibility is for everyone” may provoke the biggest losses.

And on the issue of the elderly, we need to be clear. When the elderly are referred to with regards to Web accessibility, it is in the perspective that as people age, they are more likely to develop certain impairments, such as diminished eye-sight, less fine motor skills, etc. So this continues to be about disability. If their abilities do not change with age, they will not be significantly affected by the inaccessibility of a Web page any more than, say, a 30-year old with no disability.

This is where people sometimes contribute to cloud the issue, through no malicious intent I am sure. But let us remind ourselves that we live in the real world. And the real world is generally not an easy place. Let us remind ourselves also that accessibility usually costs more to varying degrees and demands more effort and knowledge, even if it is taken into account at the onset (hell, if it was easy, we would not even be having these discussions), and that people, governments or corporations are not generally motivated to do things if they cost more money or require more effort. Let us finally remind ourselves that for all sorts of reasons that I will not get into here, people with disabilities are often an uncomfortable subject and one of the last “things” people want to think about. And lucky for them, most of the time they do not have to. Indeed, even in this day and age, a lot of people do not even personally know persons with disabilities (even though we represent over half a billion people world-wide), have never even knowingly had a real conversation with a person with a disability and have absolutely no practical idea what their reality is.

So accessibility does not sell very well most of the time, even in places where it is required by law. Consequently, one often finds oneself in a situation where one needs to make accessibility more attractive or “sexy” as some would say. One needs to point out that not only is accessibility good for the disabled, but hey, look at all the rest it can do for you, is that not at least worth your while ?

so what ?

As I have often said, there is no problem with mentioning the additional benefits of accessibility when pertinent or necessary. Sure, I wish that people would be motivated to do it for those whose needs this field primarily addresses but strangely enough, I too live in the real world and understand that often, more is required to get things done. But as I have also often pointed out, I do have a problem with distorting the issue to the point where people with disabilities are practically or effectively evacuated from the discussion, which is something that happens more and more in this field. I recently came accross a series of articles on search engine optimisation that presented the advantages of 36 accessibility checkpoints and managed to not once mention persons with disabilities. Does that seem like a step in the right direction ? Will it help people understand what accessibility is really about, all it really entails ?

I also have a problem with the fact that accessibility, which is related to core issues of discrimination and fundamental conditions with regards to equal rights for persons with disabilities, becomes conditional to what is convenient for mobile device users or search engines robots, etc., and this, even in places where accessibility is mandated by law. How many times have I read on various mailing lists that the only way someone was able to convince a client to include such and such accessibility consideration was to showcase the auxiliary benefits ? How many times have I heard “Google is blind” ? Yeah ? Who cares ? Google is a robot. It has no needs or rights. It is a robot. And whether it is search engines or blackberries or people who are in a hurry, etc., as I said in my very first post on this blog, you can not consider these things on the same level as the needs of persons with disabilities. It is simply not the same thing.

I think that one of the reasons this has become such a problem is that before the mass distribution and widespread use of information technologies, most people did not really feel very concerned, if at all, with accessibility. Traditionally, these considerations were mostly dealt with by very specialised fields, such as rehabilitation and ergonomics specialists, architects and engineers, advocates and policy makers, professions that were not widely available or of direct interest to the majority. You could not just decide one day that you were an architect and print up some business cards and voilà ! And unless for example you were the owner of a building (also not available to everyone) that suddenly had to deal with accessibility to conform to a building code, all of this was not even an issue for most people.

Then bang !, the Web exploded. And practically overnight, countless people started getting involved or were thrown into accessibility through Web development and design. And dare I say, many, however well intentioned, never having dealt directly or very little with persons with disabilities, possessed only a theoretical understanding of the needs, the stakes and the overall issues.

But you know, accessibility did not happen yesterday or with the advent of the Web. Web developers did not invent accessibility. I understand that for many developers, accessibility is largely a series of checkpoints or technical requirements to satisfy, I understand that through their job, this is how they often must deal with it. And I understand it is not always easy. But accessibility means much more than that.

And laws, policies and initiatives concerning accessibility were not developed and implemented over the last few decades or so because it was convenient for everyone, quite the contrary. These things happened because they were necessary to advance the rights and improve the socioeconomic conditions of persons with disabilities. And this may come as a big surprise to some but we are not there yet. Most persons with disabilities are a long way from having the same rights and quality of life as everyone else. And we need to stop pretending they do which, from where I am sitting, is what this “accessibility is for everyone” stance seems to be, pretense and denial. I do not mean to insult anyone but I think that some people are failing to grasp the bigger picture here.

Jutta Treviranus of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, in her paper Expanding the Digital Media in More Human Directions (2000), wrote “For people without disabilities, technology makes things convenient, for people with disabilities, it makes things possible.” The same can certainly be said of accessibility. I think Camp 1 would do well to keep this in mind.

Filed under: accessibility, words


  1. And I would invite y’all to read Mike Davies’ series Accessibility in Trouble and particularly installement 4 titled Dehumanisation, which has the merit, notably, of getting quickly to the point.

    Comment by zara — October 8, 2006 @ 10:56 am

  2. Hi Catherine,

    impressive post and I think I’m nearly convinced.

    Unfortunatly the W3C itself seems to be ambiguous about the objectives of Web Accessibility. To quote the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0:

    For those unfamiliar with accessibility issues pertaining to Web page design, consider that many users may be operating in contexts very different from your own: […] They may have a text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow Internet connection. […] They may be in a situation where their eyes, ears, or hands are busy or interfered with (e.g., driving to work, working in a loud environment, etc.). They may have an early version of a browser, a different browser entirely, a voice browser, or a different operating system.


    By following these guidelines, content developers can create pages that transform gracefully. Pages that transform gracefully remain accessible despite any of the constraints described in the introduction, including physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities, work constraints, and technological barriers [sic!].

    That sounds like universality to me. Maybe that’s were the misunderstanding (or - to keep the metaphor -the division into two camps) comes from in the first place.

    Comment by Klaus Hartl — October 9, 2006 @ 4:04 pm

  3. Hi Klaus,

    Nice to see you have not given up :)

    Seriously, I think it is great that you are still interested. And yes, I agree. As I said in my original post, WAI does occasionally offer inconsistent takes on the subject which certainly does not help matters, though I can see where that is coming from. And since we are quoting here, I would offer this outtake from WCAG 1.0 as well :

    “These guidelines explain how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. The guidelines are intended for all Web content developers (page authors and site designers) and for developers of authoring tools. The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility.”

    In later documents, including the WCAG 2.0 draft as well as the introductory document quoted in this present post, they are clearer in delimiting the principle beneficiaries and secondary benefits. But inversely, they recently published a press release about accessibility for rich applications, in which there was an inconsistency between the original press release and the translated French version that could add to the confusion.

    Anyway, I am certainly not speaking for WAI or W3C (gawd forbid), just offering information that can contribute to a better understanding and support my views on the matter, obviously. And I am aware that a lot of people may not agree with me and I can live with that.

    I just want people to think things through a bit more and consider the larger issues.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by zara — October 9, 2006 @ 5:29 pm

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