Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 4: Dehumanisation

Thursday, October 05, 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).

The root of web accessibility is about disabled people; making sure that the sites we produce are accessible to them. This needs to be remembered when we practise web accessibility. Our reason for doing so is to ensure that we don't infringe on the human rights of people with disabilities.

Web accessibility is one of the few fields of knowledge that is formalised around civil rights. It was established as an activity within the W3C as a means of bridging the gap between disabled people and non-disabled people online.


Yet, the crux of web accessibility - the protection of human rights - is constantly overlooked or diluted by these self-proclaimed accessibility evangelists. They seem to go out of their way to take that important human element out of the context. Its very seldom an accessibility barrier is expressed in humanitarian terms by these 'evangelists'.

Why? For a practice established around societal principles and human rights, it seems downrightly absurd to over look that human element.

Marginalised history

Disabled people have suffered a long history of being shunned by the communities and societies they are a part of. In our sorry tale called history we have a long and successful track record of alienating people with disabilities.

On the web today, the marginalisation of disabled people is even more insidious. On first glance it looks like the needs of disabled people are being catered for, but looking deeper, they are grouped in with inanimate objects, and then the history of silence is continued.

The habit of marginalisation

In the perennial permathread of what web accessibility is, I see countless examples of this dehumanisation, including this whopper:

Recent discussions about what web accessibility really is has made me think. Is it limited to supporting assistive technologies; is it about providing access for everyone; or is it even that a page should render identically in all browsers?

The insidiousness is quite impressive. Somehow "catering for people with disabilities" gets transmorgified into "supporting assistive technologies", and access to all (which apparently also covers software programs, bad business decisions and printers) takes on a warm fuzzy human feeling.

When cold technology is compared to warm blooded humans, there is a natural instinctive reaction towards the warm fuzzies. Especially when the human rights implications of that choice are quietly ignored and washed over.

Denigration of human rights

With the vacuous "access for all", the entire purpose of web accessibility - protecting the rights of disabled people to participate in (an online) society - is being eroded to the point where mobile phones, search engines, Lynx and printers have more of a say in what makes an accessible website than the human beings we are reaching out to.

Marginalising human rights

So here we are, trying our hardest to protect and enhance the online experience of disabled people. Protecting their rights of participation by ensuring we are removing the barrier we've previously created that prevent that participation. We take that further by learning what we can about how disabled people use the web, and from that we refine and experiment in techniques that improve that quality of participation.

And the self-titled evangelist complains how hard-done by he really is, with no option of broadband, working for a company that actively prevents him surfing the web, complaining about how websites render on his mobile phone. And still has the gall to insist that his minor frustrations are equally as dire as the dereliction of human rights of people with disabilities.

Ill-good intentions

Zealots, however well-intentioned, dehumanise web accessibility. They strip out the core essence of what web accessibility is about - empathy and the protection of human rights of people with disabilities.

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