Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 3: Universality

Wednesday, October 04, 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).

Web accessibility is being compromised by an echo-chamber of zealots. They want you to believe that web accessibility is about encompassing everyone, every browser, every mood, and every piece of programming logic. They ignore facts as well as history, they take only the bits that suit their belief-system, and then flatly deny anything that disproves it.

An accusation of laziness

Developers and designers are human beings, and human beings are often lazy. Most of them won't do more than they have to, especially not when it comes to boring stuff like web standards and accessibility.

If important and renowned personalities in the business say that it's OK to build web pages that only work in Internet Explorer, or which require JavaScript, images or Flash, there is a risk that many will use that as an excuse for not making an effort.

This is how zealots are derailing web accessibility - by insisting that web accessibility bear the burden of universality. This universality is extended to cover all browsers, all bad company decisions, low-quality phone lines, both Lynx users, the guy in Sweden who chooses to turn off JavaScript and the guy in a desperate need to relieve himself.

That of course, highlights the point. Surely if universality is such a great concept, it should be capable of standing on its own two feet? It should not need web accessibility as a crutch. The tacit suggestion above is that zealots actually have no confidence in the concept of universality - the concept of a site being independent of user-agent software and hardware.

Self-proclaimed righteousness

I think one thing that should be made clear is that although we disagree how far the term of accessibility goes, the level at which Joe [Clark] et al take it to is at least a damned sight better than those who do not consider accessibility at all. Estimating them at 100%, it's just some of us want to take it to 110% / 120%.

So the zealots claim that what they do is 10% or 20% more on what web accessibility aims to achieve. And yet, their mantra disallows the use of Flash, disallows plugins, disallows all software other than a web browser (and even that is strictly limited). In short, they ignore the last five years of technology advancement.

Conflict of universality

The position of disallowing technologies such as Flash stands quite contrary to providing accessible content. Here the goals of universality are conflicting with web accessibility.

Web accessibility has always been about reaching out to disabled people - using what we have at our disposal: technology and technique. Starting with an accessible website, and ripping out the Flash (because there's no Flash plugin for Lynx) is a step backwards for web accessibility. And yet, this is what zealots want you to do.

Its very reminiscent of the tools that create a text-only version of a website - by stripping out the images and multimedia. Both the concept and the process do more to hinder the accessibility of a website.

The basis of accessibility

Many zealots immediately claim that a site using Flash is inaccessible because it doesn't work in Lynx. That position is plain flat-out wrong. Lynx isn't a statement of what is accessible. The sole test of accessibility is testing with people with disabilities. By vociferously preventing the adoption of accessible solutions, zealots are standing in the way of websites catering for their disabled audiences - guess who's losing out again?

The failure of universality

If zealots have their way, websites would only use HTML, with an optional CSS for presentation. And yet, this combination of technologies is inaccessible to certain groups of disabled people - certain groups that can be reached with Flash and JavaScript.

That's where universality fails to address the needs of disabled people.

Zealots of universality, however well-intentioned, are standing in the way of building a higher quality of accessible websites. By deliberately taking the human element out of web accessibility, the actual needs of disabled people are rejected in favour of an impractical illusion.

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