Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 5: Deterioration

Tuesday, October 24, 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).

Universality has been a failure on the web - we've known this for nearly ten years. The promises and vision behind universality have proven to be insufficient to meet the needs and requirements of disabled people.

The history behind the formation of the Web Accessibility Initiative is a clear evidence that universality failed.


Before the Web became enormously popular, it was accessible to people with vision related disabilities. They were using the Web quite comfortably, up to that point.

When the Web started grabbing the attention of mainstream news, two unexpected things happened. Graphical browsers, thanks to the image element, dominated the public's attention, and print designers (thanks to the table element) began plying their trade as web designers, bringing in visually stunning designs. Both these factors sparked further explosive growth of the Web.

Graphical browsers flourished in the then-new GUI world. As businesses moved from DOS-based systems into Windows based systems, thousands of visually impaired people lost their jobs, mainly because GUIs were inaccessible. As web designers started developing websites for graphical browsers it created a fear that visually impaired people would be locked out again.


As the Web got more and more popular, as it started to infiltrate into the average home, vision-impaired people, who had been enjoying unfettered access found themselves being denied access to content.

The more successful the web became, the more it isolated the vision-impaired audience. The dominance of graphical based websites, and the demands of designers for pixel perfect designs, meant that less and less content was available in an accessible form.


The vision behind the Web was one of universal access to all people. And yet, this vision was insufficient to ensure that accessibility of the web to vision impaired people remained possible. Universality, however well intentioned it was, failed disabled people.

In 1997, blind and vision impaired people, represented by disability organisations appealed to the W3C to remedy this problem, and institute measures to ensure that disabled people's right to participate in an online society was supported.

The major concern was, as the web was becoming more and more popular, disabled people were finding it more and more difficult - if not impossible, to use the web. Where once they were using the Web successfully, now barriers imposed by websites were preventing them from participating online.


The W3C considered the problem, and the solution was rather radical and unusual. They recognised that their vision of universality, even though it was supported by all the recommendations the W3C had published, was clearly failing to meet the needs of disabled people.

Their solution was to create an activity that specifically watched over the needs and requirements of disabled people and ensured that all work within the W3C took accessibility on board and to heart.

The W3C created the Web Accessibility Initiative, an Activity devoted to ensuring that the technologies and standards coming out of the W3C were accessible to people with disabilities.

Forward looking

In 1997 the W3C recognised that graphical interfaces were here to stay. It recognised that the best way of tackling web accessibility was through improvement of technology. Nine years later, and so-called accessibility evangelists fail to grasp even this point.

Those web accessibility zealots who deny or ignore history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. They need to stop denigrating the rights of disabled people on the web. Protecting and upholding their civil rights is far more important than a zealot's lack of broadband. A fast connection isn't a civil right.

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