Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility In Trouble 6: Misrepresentation

Wednesday, October 25, 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 about making adjustments to your websites so that disabled people are not unreasonably prevented from accessing your content. Its effectively a statement upholding the civil rights of disabled people, and recognising the importance of their continued participation in an online society.

As businesses move more and more of their core services and offerings online, it's essential that disabled people can access and use these online services.

Our path to accessibility is either one of two: we either follow the W3C guidelines in the development of websites, and adapt it to today's technological conditions and audience; or we fully test every core aspect of the website with a group of people with a full range of disabilities. Some websites do both.

Uncomfortable truth

Every now and then I hold workshops on Web standards and accessibility for Web developers, and as soon as I mention the word "disability", people tend to start inspecting their finger nails very carefully or look uncomfortable. I find that talking about accessibility for everyone, disabled or not, makes people relax a little and start listening.

This is a surprise - an admission that people find the topic of disabled people uncomfortable. So, instead of telling it like it is, this 'evangelist' has decided to redefine accessibility into something a prospective client (or audience) will find palatable.

Playing to audience whims does not bolster the credibility of universality, nor tackles the vital need for web accessibility.

Pitching for business

We, as accessibility proponents and Web developers, have to somehow "sell" the concept of accessibility to our clients and employers. That can be relatively easy for government sites, where legislation often prohibits discrimination, but it is often a real challenge for commercial sites. What is the ROI of accessibility? How does it affect our bottom line? How will it help our next quarterly report?

In cases like these, pleading on behalf of an anonymous group of "people with disabilities" can be like talking to a brick wall. It's not that the clients are callous or cruel; they simply balance the perceived cost of accessibility against the expected increase in revenue. If the scales tip the wrong way, they're willing to write off the "disabled" group as an acceptable loss. Money talks.

With what seems to be a straight face, and an appeal to reason, it seems the definition of accessibility (from a universality evangelist) is whatever answer the potential client wants to hear. This sort of misselling is rife in the greasy-palmed commission-reliant sectors of businesses, but I'm shocked to hear it coming from a supposedly reputable web accessibility evangelist.

And, what's more galling, this is used to demonstrate that accessibility is universality!

How Johansson sells to his clients is his business. The promises and claims he makes as part of getting a contract is his business. But publicly promoting this as a way to strive for web accessibility is certainly not right, nor justifiable.

Confirmation of an agenda

I'm shocked, but not surprised. I recognised that there are private agendas behind universality. I'm shocked at the person behind the admission - the web's very own blogger darling, Roger Johansson (backed by the accessibility "evangelist" Tommy Olsson).

I know that misselling, over-hyped sales pitches and overblown promises seem to be the norm in web design circles, perhaps Roger thinks he has to stoop to that level to get clients - using "accessibility" as a unique selling point. Sell them features that sound like what clients want, and use that as a basis to increase profit margins? (Why else sell accessibility as a feature when we know full well that it can be done as part of a normal web standards development process with minimal increase in cost?)

Accessibility charlatan

Either way, it's a slap in the face for the rights of disabled people. Their rights are being pushed aside because its not palatable to Johansson's clients. The ends do not justify the means. We have enough problems with accessibility charlatans - Johannson being its newest member.

As an "approved" way of encouraging web accessibility, it is littered with deceit, disrespect and dishonesty. Its unethical and not conducive to protecting the rights of others. I know I won't be able sleep well at night standing by such strategies - even in silent disagreement. It goes against the very fabric of being a respectful society.

Web accessibility, protecting the civil rights of disabled people to participate online, is being devalued by web accessibility "experts" and "evangelists" out to raise their own profiles, and justify their expenses.

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