Bruce Lawson’s personal site

The two great accessibility debates

There’s two fundamental debates taking place at the moment that get to the heart of what we mean by Web accessibility, and its relation to disability discrimination legislation. These are important debates to have; here’s my personal opinions.

Who is accessibility for?

There’s a corking fisticuffs on the usually very genteel Accessify forum between two accessibility heavyweights that I respect very much: Brothercake and Isofarro. It all kicked off when Isofarro said,

Accessibility, again, it needs to be stressed, first and foremost is about people. If people chose to use incompatible software, whilst there are compatible options available, that is their choice, not an accessibility obstacle.

Brothercake and others argue convincingly that accessibility isn’t just about disabled people. Brothercake writes,

I have never considered accessibility to be “just” or even “primarily” about people with disabilities. I’ve always considered it to be: going to all reasonable lengths to ensure the widest possible access to information you provide. Whatever the reason, be it physical, financial, logistic, whatever.

Pixeldiva continues:

Surely the definition of accessibility is that it allows anyone to access it, regardless of their abilities or the technologies that they are using? Whether that’s lynx on an old 486 win95 machine on a 14.4 buad modem from a croft in the highlands or whether it’s a business user with winxp and the latest browser/access tech combo.

Brothercake and Pixeldiva make a compelling argument for the device-independence that Standards aspires to, but after much thought, I’m with Isofarro on this. The WAI is about making sites available to people with disabilities who have difficulties using the Web. Full stop. User choice is not a disability.

I don’t care if my site is inaccessible to you if you choose to read it through the wrong end of a telescope.

I’ve been called out for being inaccessible in the past for using an Image Replacement technique (I can’t remember what name it’s got) that doesn’t work if you have images off, css on. But I can’t think of any user who us forced by disability or assistive technology to use the Web that way. So I don’t care if my site is inaccessible to someone who chooses to surf that way, in the same way as I don’t care if you can’t read this post if you choose to read it through the wrong end of a telescope, or clamp your hands over your eyes as soon as the page loads.

Should there be legislation to ensure accessibility?

It’s not sour grapes over Gwyneth, nor even the age-old animosity between Mod and punk (which was always heart-warmingly shelved at Jam gigs I went to – but I digress), but I have to disagree slightly with my fellow WaSP ATF member, Malarkey over his excellent and thought-provoking article “Accessibility and a society of control“. (I’m not going to summarise it here; you wouldn’t’ve got this far in my blog if you hadn’t read Andy’s post already.)

Like all old punks, I grew up mistrustful of governments (“Anarchy in the UK!“) and generally suspicious of all legislation, but I feel that we need the legislation we currently have in the UK – but nothing more.

Like all old lefties, I believe that left to their own devices, the majority of companies tend to be monopolistic, exploitative and anti-social. And that’s OK: their motive is profit, not being lovely and teaching the world to sing in perfeck harmoneeee.

For example, I don’t believe that in the 1970s, UK businesses would have moved to paying men and women the same if the government hadn’t legislated to that effect. Company x would have been stupid to increase their costs while their competitors were keeping theirs down by continuing to ignore women’s rights. It needed the government to force them all to do it at the same time.

The sole function of government is to guarantee our rights and protect the citizens of the country, particularly the weak and vulnerable. That means a National Health Service to protect the sick, legislation to outlaw sex and race discrimination, and laws to outlaw disability discrimination. Government must also protect its citizens from the excesses of corporations, as capitalism is about profit, and not about protecting the weak or helping the unfortunate.

Legislate against discrimination, not for accessibility

But I completely agree with Andy that we shouldn’t legislate for accessibility. I wouldn’t want the 650 tech-illiterates in Whitehall coming up with a Section 508-style checklist that was mandatory to follow. For one, they’d get it wrong anyway; also, once you have a checklist, people will obviously see accessibility as an exercise in box-ticking. Even when technology improves and new, better, techniques have evolved, business owners wouldn’t let us take advantage of them even if those new techniques enhance accessibility, because the law wouldn’t have specified those techniques; only the obsolete checklist would have the force of law.

A legally-enforced checklist approach would end up harming the cause of accessibility, as new and better techniques would languish unused as site owners would (completely understandably) continue using mandated but old-fashioned techniques.

But what we have in the UK – and what we need tested in court – is ten year old legislation that looks on accessibility not as a technical matter but as a human rights matter. It is already illegal to discriminate against a person with a disability and refuse them access to your goods or services.

This is where I find myself schizophrenic. As someone who advises site owners, I sometimes wish there were a checklist so we could be sure that we’re going to escape having our collars felt. As an activist, I like the fact that the law is woolly and ambiguous; business people who follow it are likely to do more than the minimum necessary, as there are no checklists to define that minimum.

The only extra legislation I think we need is a section in the act to unambiguously state that websites are subject to the DDA (I know the DRC code of practice states this, but does that have the force of an Act? Any lawyers in the house?).

Then we need the Crown Prosecution Service to start prosecuting.

Debates without personal attacks help accessibility

So leave a comment calling me a fascist bastard.

7 Responses to “ The two great accessibility debates ”

Comment by Paul Boag

As with all things in life it is about moderation. On one hand I agree accessibility is much broader than the needs of the disabled but on the other hand we need to live in the real world where things are about return on investment. Is it really worth spending a week making your site accessible to mac users when you are selling PC software? However what does disturb me is the amount of time and agression people seem to pour into these debates. We should be encouraging each other (and the many, many site owners who never think twice about accessibility) to do something positive about accessibility rather than spend all our time telling each other we aren’t doing it properly! See my site for more rantin on the subject 🙂

Comment by paul haine

I’ve been called out for being inaccessible in the past for using an Image Replacement technique…that doesn’t work if you have images off, css on. But I can’t think of any user who us forced by disability or assistive technology to use the Web that way. So I don’t care if my site is inaccessible to someone who chooses to surf that way.

For what it’s worth, I often have to browse this way. I’ve recently moved house and have been without a phone line for two months, so my only browsing option has been using my mobile phone as a modem and a GPRS connection. There are two notable things about a GPRS connection: one is that it’s painfully slow – I’m talking about speeds about 1/4 or 1/8 as fast as a dial-up connection – and two is that it’s painfully expensive, as you pay per byte, not per minute. So images just get switched off; I can’t afford to download them. When I find a site that relies upon images – be they inline images or CSS background images – and has no text alternative then generally I’ll get mildly annoyed and either move on, never to return, or I’ll switch off CSS as well to access the content (I had to do this recently when visiting for instance – the navigation was completely invisible until I switched CSS off).

You may consider this to be an unusual case, but I’ve been on plenty of train journeys lately where I’ve seen people using their mobile devices as modems, in conjunction with their laptops.

Furthermore, it’s not just people having to use mobile devices; I still know of plenty of dial-up users who browse with images off because it is so much faster. In this case, yes, it’s a choice they’ve made, but it’s a choice based on circumstance, not on personal preference.

Now, I’m not saying you should stop using CSS image replacement; it’s your website so it’s up to you what you do with it, and I do use it on my own sites as well to some extent. I do keep seeing people marginalising the ‘images off, CSS on’ people, though, as if this is a tiny group who are just being weird and annoying and only have themselves to blame; we don’t browse this way through choice.

Comment by Bruce

Hmmm. Thanks Paul; definitely food for thought…

But I think I can legitimately ignore images off/ css on: it’s very easy for the site visitor to ameliorate the difficulty, compared with the problems of a blind user.

Comment by goodwitch

ShortTerm Goal: Ability for a user with a disability to obtain the same information and perform the same tasks as any other user.

LongTerm Goal: Universal Accessibility. Help all web developers/designers work smarter by insuring that web technologies adhere to the same well thought out standards.

When conflicts arise between disability access and universal access…make the content accessible to people with disabilities and update the standard ASAP so there isn’t a conflict.

P.S. Is that oolong hopping around down there???

Comment by Bruce

Good call, goodwitch. First thing to do is get the assistiive technologies to play nice with Standards.

Yes, it is oolong… with a twist.

Comment by Lachlan Hardy

Those two definitions are fairly common opposing stances in the area. I’ve always preferred something of a middle ground, expressed best by Joe Clark, I think:

I use the same definition of accessibility everywhere: accommodating features a person cannot change or cannot change easily.

It doesn’t refer solely to people with disabilities but also covers those that Paul refers to and others. After all, I think that Derek Featherstone made a pretty good case a year ago that parents with young children can require help with accessibility.

On the other hand, it doesn’t imply that we should be supporting people’s stubborn choices regards use of obsolete technology (although, it does infer supporting obsolete technology if people don’t have a choice in its use)

And I completely agree about legislating against discrimination rather than creating a checklist to force compliance. That doesn’t require thought, so it will never lead to innovation in the field

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