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.
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’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.