Wendy Chisholm

Stairs make the building inaccessible, not the wheelchair. Co-author of Universal Design for Web Applications. Strategist for Microsoft. @wendyabc at twitter.

Archive for March, 2009

Is web accessibility a human rights issue?

with 11 comments

A post from David Baron questions if web accessibility is a human rights issue.  Here’s a quick summary of some of his major points: He acknowledges that laws exist that give people with disabilities basic human rights and that on-line government services should be made accessible. He disagrees that Flickr should require all photos to have alt-text and he believes that requiring all web services and applications be accessible would stymie innovation. He calls people such as John Foliot and Matt May extremists and worries that “this community is in significant danger of being taken over by, or at least best known by, those within it who espouse such extreme positions that they risk causing the entire community to be ignored.”

David says, “It’s far better for accessibility to be the automatic result of writing HTML in the normal way rather than something that has to be done as an extra development step” Yes! That’s part of the goal of the W3C Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG). If the tools just produced accessible content, then voila. The web would be more accessible.

David wants us to explain why access to the web is a human rights issue.

Human rights refer to the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled.”[1] Examples of rights and freedoms which have come to be commonly thought of as human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights. Fetched 12 March 2009

Web services and applications are becoming the way that people participate in culture, buy food, work, and learn. Therefore, ensuring that they are accessible to all people is a human right. This is supported in the United Nations  Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that has been signed by 139 countries. Article 9 – Accessibility and Article 21 – Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information specifically mention services provided via the internet.

It’s important for us to recognize each other’s concerns. On the one hand we have technologists who want to create things to help make the world better–help people communicate more richly and quickly, to create technologies for self-expression and commerce. Rock on. We want you to innovate because you’re changing the world.  On the other hand we have people who want to use the technologies and to participate in society. When the technologists say, “Don’t make me think about accessibility, I want to be innovative.” The response from people with disabilities can be hostile because the message from the technologists is, “I do not value you enough to include you in my innovation.”

The funny thing about David’s post is that he mentions the invention of the telephone. Thomas Edison was hard of hearing and part of the reason he spent so much time experimenting was that he wanted a device to help him hear. For Edison’s invention to be complete, it took the help of another person involved in the Deaf community, Alexander Graham Bell, who in his experiments to understand speech,  invented the microphone. In both instances, inspired by friends and family who had hearing loss, they changed the world.

The irony is that these technologies changed the way we communicate so much, that people who are deaf were unable to participate and it was later that the modem (for the TDD) and other devices were developed. But, those tools were in response to the earlier inventions and have further changed the way we communicate.

Therefore, the exact worry that David has–lack of innovation–is exactly what we’ll avoid if people with disabilities *are* considered in the design and experimentation of new ideas!  So, see, we really *all* can get along and no one gets hurt. Come on folks, let’s go play and have some fun.

Written by wendy

March 12th, 2009 at 3:52 pm