Wendy Chisholm

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

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

11 Responses to 'Is web accessibility a human rights issue?'

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  1. Well said, Wendy, and (if I can retweet myself here!) to the telephone you can add other products or innovations, such as the cassette recorder, predictive text for mobile devices, and the Ford Focus car as examples of where accessibility considerations have helped create a product that is successfully used by a wider audience. These examples help to counter any argument that accessibility hinders or prevents innovation.

    So the problem is how do we get accessibility-sceptics to read the reasoned arguments for accessibility, like this blog post, rather than the fundamentalist arguments (of which I don’t believe there really are that many)?

    David Sloan

    12 Mar 09 at 4:14 pm

  2. I’m a bit confused, did you really mean to imply that a lack of innovation would be the result if people with disabilities are included in the design and experimentation of new ideas?

    Or was the phrase wore *are* supposed to be *are not*?

    Ann

    12 Mar 09 at 4:31 pm

  3. Ann – oops! No, the opposite. We’ll have more innovative products if we design for more people. Good catch. Thank you.

    wendy

    12 Mar 09 at 4:54 pm

  4. I do think that design restrictions and limitations can in fact bear fantastic, creative results. But more so, I subscribe to the idea of contextual, holistic, integrated approaches to accessible design, very much like Brian Kelly and David Sloan in the UK talk/write about.

    On a slight tangent, but still relevant, is a point on Bell.

    Bell actually had a profoundly negative effect on the well being of the Deaf in the late 1800’s which the community is still, to some extent, recovering from.

    His family had an interesting connection to deafness in that his father and grandfather were both well regarded speech therapists and both his mother and wife were deaf – however, they never acknowledged that they were.

    So deafness was something they tried to cure, rather than acknowledge and support. So much so, in fact, that in 1880, when Deaf education and all that goes with that (successful employment etc) was at its peak, he introduced an education policy on Oralism at the Milan Congress of Educators of the Deaf.

    Suddenly deaf students were being taught Orally, they were forbidden to sign in school and the number of Deaf teachers dropped from 50% to 12% in 80 years. It was an absolute tradgedy that our Deaf friends are still being affected by even now, which is evident even now in lower than average literacy rates and educational success within the Deaf population.

    Apologies for the long post! It’s something I’m passionate about and am speaking on at SxSW this year… so it’s all fresh in my mind 🙂

    Hope to see you at CSUN and perhaps SxSW 😉

    Lisa

    Lisa Herrod

    12 Mar 09 at 5:01 pm

  5. The rights of human beings to participate in culture, consume sufficient nutrition, work, and learn are not equivalent to rights to all the ways a human being might participate in culture, consume nutrition, work, or learn. To have rights to these things implies only that one has a right to at least one way of participating, consuming, working, or learning. So long as the internet is not the only means by which person is able to consume sufficient nutrition, he or she has no ‘right’ to be able to use the internet to do so. The same follows for the other rights mentioned.

    Andrew Shields

    12 Mar 09 at 5:03 pm

  6. Let’s never forget “The Electronic Curb-Cut Effect” by Steve Jacobs:
    http://www.icdri.org/technology/ecceff.htm

    David Bolter

    12 Mar 09 at 6:24 pm

  7. First – thanks Wendy for a balanced retort.

    Extremist… I am proud to wear that label. I make no apologies for drawing my line in the sand, but to be very clear to all – that is *MY* line, and not that of all those that work and live in the accessibility space that we share. For those within our community who become uncomfortable with my stance, I apologize to them for their discomfort only, but not for my stance. And for those who have written me in the past supporting my comments – thank you for your encouragement.

    It’s too bad that Mr. Baron chooses to not allow responses on his blog. It is his right of course, but it allows for only one point of view, and not for dialog. He points to two recent emails I have authored as proof that my position(s) stifle ‘innovation’. However, while he goes to great lengths to discredit my position, he does absolutely nothing to advance an alternative way of ensuring that a specification emerges that delivers on an oft quoted goal of the WHAT WG: that “…accessibility just happens…” Trust me, I want that more than many can even comprehend, but if the specifications currently being drawn up do not set the stage and ensure that possibility, then that goal will simply not be met. The example of BeSpin is proof of that. As I stated in my letter, had fallback content be a mandatory design requirement for the BeSpin developers, I’m sure their creative minds and collective development experience would have found a way. But because it is only an ‘option’, they have ‘thoughts’ sitting on a shelf somewhere – maybe they will emerge, or maybe they will continue to gather dust.

    Finally, in one of those postings, I made what I thought was a legitimate and compelling case for the *BUSINESS MODEL* that these Web 2.0 HTML5 web apps are seeking to address: increasingly, consumers of these tools – certainly at the enterprise level – are asking about, and being held to account for, accessibility issues. A specification that builds in these requirements as mandatory establishes a developer baseline that other aspects of society have already embraced – this is a bad thing?

    So technologist such as Mr. Baron can listen, think and learn, or they can go blithely into the brave new frontier, developing web-apps with little chance of monitization – but hey, they are cool. Good luck with that.

    (and Wendy, sorry for stealing your platform for my soap box)

    John Foliot

    12 Mar 09 at 7:57 pm

  8. […] that brings me to a point David Baron raised. I can only echo what Wendy Chisholm said in response. I consider access to information just like anyone else to be a right I have as a human being, and […]

  9. […] response to David, via Wendy Chisholm’s blog (David does not allow for comments on his blog) included the following: Extremist… I am proud to […]

  10. […] Is Web Accessibility a Human Rights Issue? by Wendy Chisholm 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.” […]

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