How the west was won and where it got us

I read a blog post by web standards advocate Drew McLellan yesterday, the opening sentence of which alarmed me greatly:

As a web developer, there’s little I dislike more than building sites to be accessible.

That’s some confession. Now, cards on the table – I don’t know Drew, though I do appreciate his efforts in promoting web standards adoption. And I’m not here to suggest he is arguing against accessible design – on the contrary, from his blog it’s something that he feels obliged to do, so he does it:

So as much as I find it an unpleasant chore, I’m firmly committed to building sites that can be accessible as I can make them.

What I do take from the blog, though, is that this is an example borne of frustration that accessibility considerations are stifling innovation in web application design and development. As I’m not yet familiar with the technologies discussed in the blog, I’ll leave the details of the argument surrounding those technologies to others.  I will say that much of Drew’s ‘accessibility’ objections seem to focus on the avoidance of dependency on JavaScript – which, since publication of WCAG 2, is no longer considered a disability accessibility showstopper (in other words, the very use of JavaScript does not immediately exclude a particular group of users on account of a disability).

I wrote a paper a couple of years ago that commented on how important it was for accessibility that the Web Standards movement embraced WCAG, after accessibility advocates argued that standards-based web design naturally encompassed accessible design. But are we now seeing signs of the same movement become tired of dealing with the human messiness that is accessibility?

Accessibility is no longer seen as purely an exercise in WCAG validation and a nice technical string to a developer’s bow, where all user needs are met in their entirety. Now we know that assistive technologies don’t always take advantage of HTML’s accessibility support in the way we might expect; there is a heated debate over whether current HTML attributes aimed at supporting accessibility must have evidence of usefulness for their inclusion in HTML 5, and whether non-use or abuse means rejection from the spec., regardless of potential usefulness.

And we know that users themselves are non-conformant, in that they cannot be assumed to have the appropriate accessibility solutions available for their needs. To me, the problem is this. It’s quite possible to legitimately argue that old browsers that poorly support standards are holding back evolution of the web. It’s also probably legitimate to say that the assistive technology industry has not yet met its side of the bargain in terms of supporting standards (judging by comments screen reader developers are not participating in the HTML 5 specification process). But for people who have no choice in the matter in terms of the assistive technology they use, is it fair to accuse them of holding back innovation?

I accept that accessible design can in some cases be challenging, frustrating and time consuming, and this is all done under a – occasionally unreasonably applied – pressure to ‘do the right thing’. But the danger of comments from respected figures in the web standards movement that accessibility is a drag on progress may be interpreted by those who are less informed as evidence that accessibility is something that’s no longer worth striving for. Railing at the shortcomings of screen readers doesn’t help people who have to use them. I don’t know the politics of the apparent lack of engagement of screen reader vendors in HTML 5 and other Web standards projects. But suggestions that accessibility advocates work on educating AT vendors instead of encouraging content providers to think about accessibility could easily be distorted and interpreted as the sort of attitude to disability the appalling Daily Mail stirs up amongst the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade.

Let’s not try to blame accessibility on unreasonably holding us back. Let’s look instead to innovation through inclusive design – the Ford Focus, Oxo Good Grips and several other examples of where taking into account ‘extraordinary users’ has led to a better user experience for all. Can WAI-ARIA lead to more examples being added to that list?

But, when I said disabled web users had ‘no choice’ above, of course that’s not quite true. For those who need a dedicated assistive technology, there increasingly is a choice, especially in the number of quality open source alternatives emerging. The problem is that lack of awareness of what’s available usually leads to a reduced choice of the most well-known (and ironically expensive) commercial products, and is something that activists like OATS and the guys behind AccessApps are trying to address.

So, just as increasing rejection of Internet Explorer in favour of other browsers has helped drive standards-based development, perhaps the same can happen in the assistive technology scene. Poorly implemented AT is a problem, but ATs that take advantage of web standards, and increased awareness of their existence amongst potential users, can help ensure that accessibility doesn’t take the blame for holding back innovation on the web.

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2 thoughts on “How the west was won and where it got us”

  1. Thanks for your post. I think you slightly misunderstand where I’m coming from, which is probably down to my own inarticulacy.

    I’m not frustrated that accessibility considerations are holding back web development, but rather attempting to clarify the weight of the situation for those who may find themselves with that frustration.

    I don’t believe in progress at any cost – it’s important that we move forward, but we must all do so together.

    The technology 280 North are demonstrating is immensely exciting, and it is easy to get carried away in such a circumstance. My post was attempting to remind other developers that we can’t run on ahead just because the technology is shiny. We always have to build inclusively, sustainably and responsibly.

    As for the “confession” that I don’t like building sites to be accessible; don’t read too much into that. I also don’t like cutting out fiddly rounded corners from Photoshop graphics, but it’s still an important part of the job. It’s a chore, but chores have to be done. For me to pretend that the extra considerations and increased effort were a joy would be disingenuous.

  2. @drew Many thanks for dropping by to give your comments, and for your clarifications – I do appreciate the points you were making, and I agree we don’t do anyone any favours if we pretend all the work accessible design requires is glamorous.

    I guess my worry is that if I initially react to your blog entry, and others like it, in the way I did, I wonder how many others might go one stage further and decide accessibility has become too much of a drag on progress (the people who perhaps have always struggled to buy into accessibility as a necessary part of their work).

    In voicing these thoughts, I’m trying not to put unnecessary pressure on people who give us extremely valuable insight into the actual and potential impact of new web technologies. But I guess we are in agreement that there is a fine line we all have to try to avoid crossing – between tempering excitement with the question “wait – what does this mean for accessibility?” and saying “we can and will to use this stuff…so assistive technologies, it’s up to you to sort yourselves out.”

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