Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 2: Standards

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The web accessibility community is in deep trouble. Its a train-wreck waiting to happen. Unfortunately when the collision eventually happens, disabled people lose out. Its time to get web accessibility back on track. Take it back from the zealots with their own private agendas and grudges. (This is part of my series on Accessibility in Trouble).

Standards facilitate communication

Web standards is a colloquial term used to refer to the W3C's Recommendations, particularly HTML, CSS, DOM, and WCAG 1.0. By using these recommendations as the basis for building websites, we rely on a default non-vendor-specific platform. And we expect, encourage, insist that user-agent vendors also support this standard.

When following web standards, we have to accept the W3C specifications as a major cornerstone of the work web produce. It is the basis of features we take for granted:

We cannot just ignore parts of those specifications we don't agree with. Imagine someone saying they fully support web standards and at the same time say that validation is unimportant - that's crazy talk. It's a conflict in the spirit of what web standards is about - we give vendors no leeway, and we need to hold ourselves to that same expectation.

Rejecting the fundamentals

And yet, accessibility 'experts' refuse to accept that web accessibility - a core part of the web standards toolbox - is primarily about people with disabilities. It says so right in the recommendation itself. And yet, there are 'experts' who are committed to web standards who reject the fundamental basis of WCAG.

I solidly agree with Tommy on this one. Accessibility should be about giving all people access to information, regardless of any disabilities they might have and regardless of which device they are using to access the information.

And there lies the problem - if these 'experts' cannot agree on a fundamental basis for a recommendation, what signal is that sending about web standards? Web standards depend on the fundamentals being accepted, and its limitations understood. HTML is not a solution for world peace, WCAG is not a solution for universality.

Technical re-definitions

The authors thus describe the purpose of WAI's guidelines, and what meaning they assign to the concept of accessibility. As far as I know, though, they have not been given a universal right to limit the meaning of common words that are used in much wider contexts. They only explain what they mean by accessibility in their work.

These so-called experts go on and claim it is their 'opinion' that accessibility should be taken in its dictionary meaning, and how dare the W3C take a word and redefine its usage:

If the WAI or people on their behalf wish to hijack the word accessibility in all matters web then that doesn't sit so well with me. They don't cover everything required in my book to make a site accessible, and the criteria is to the widest possible audience. This is not a technical issue, it's a gramatical one. Accessibility is not a technical term, WCAG / WAI etc. are and as such they should be used in the appropriate places. Also and this is where it falls down rather, accessibility is a subjective term - WAI / WCAG should be objective.

And yet, in the arena of W3C specifications, taking words and giving them a specific technical meaning is part and parcel of establishing a technical vocabulary for humans working together. Validation, ontology, schema, vocabulary, relational, relative, pixel - just a few words that have been redefined, or refined by the W3C. To deny the W3C specific meaning is to deny the fundamental basis of web standards.

By denying the recommendation definition is to deny the recommendation. Denying the technical vocabulary is denying the basis of web standards, and denying basis of effective communication.

Zealots, however intentioned, are endangering web standards, and endangering effective communication.

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