Wendy Chisholm

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

Chasing our tails?

with 13 comments

I saw this exchange between Christian Heilmann and Jared Smith on twitter today:

jared_w_smith “There are no bigger problems in Accessibility than following every paragraph of the guidelines.” says @codepo8. Amen brother!

codepo8 @jared_w_smith seriously, every forum and mailing list is running in circles. Accessibility is stuck in 1998, web development in 2012.

I follow most of the accessibility forums and have since 1995. In 1998, people were asking if the “alt” attribute had anything to do with the “alt key” on the keyboard. Today’s questions are about menus, gmail, ARIA, forms…When DHTML was first surfacing as a technique we were panicking because NO ONE was talking about it. Look where we are now: ARIA built into several toolkits and the major browsers and access technologies understand it.

Yes, the accessibility forums are not as far ahead as the developer forums and that sucks. But, there is a larger disconnect between accessibility and technology that shapes this gap. Accessibility and disability awareness is not part of everyone’s everyday experience. The cultural dialogue about basic human rights is ongoing…we’re still debating if accessibility is even a human right! Until it is assumed that every web site, every web application, every web service must be accessible, this gap will exist.

So, yes, the guidelines are pretty dense, but so is every other technical specification and that hasn’t stopped them from being adopted and used. There are bigger issues at play here.

Written by wendy

June 3rd, 2009 at 8:54 pm

13 Responses to 'Chasing our tails?'

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  1. Well said. And I totally agree. We’ve come a long way. And guidelines have helped.

    The problem I see is that many people that should know better are so hung up on guidelines and checkpoints and compliance and conformance that they lose track of the goal – accessibility. Instead of using the guidelines as tools, they become the end-all and be-all of what accessibility is.

    While there’s much discussion on the lists about ARIA and other cool things that are truly making a difference, there is also WAY too much pedantic discussion about contrast ratios, abbreviation vs. acronym, unencoded ampersands, “programmatically determinable”, and other things that are driven entirely by guideline compliance and not real accessibility.

    Jared Smith

    3 Jun 09 at 9:17 pm

  2. I should also point out that this dialog was driven by a question to the WebAIM list (http://webaim.org/discussion/mail_thread.php?thread=3888) that suggested that a menu on our site violated WCAG and Section 508 because the links weren’t underlined. It’s this level of nitpicking about guideline conformance that is more damaging to accessibility than useful.

    Jared Smith

    3 Jun 09 at 9:20 pm

  3. Somewhere in all of this is a potential disconnect between expectations of users with disabilities around what accessibility means to each of us and what the guidelines and technology can practically deliver today in terms of an accessible solution, especially in these days of rapidly evolving technologies. In short, what I consider to be an accessible or inaccessible site for me may in fact not be the same experience and view of someone else who happens to also be a screen reader user. Perhaps it’s because I am more or less familiar with the capabilities of my screen reader. Maybe I’m not using the most current version of a screen reader so my experience will lead me to believe that a site is not accessible, despite the fact that much effort has been made using the latest techniques to make the site as accessible as possible. Maybe I find the site accessible but someone with a different disability does not, or vise versa. Finally maybe I come to a site that uses a technology that falls outside of what I am used to in HTML therefore I deem it inaccessible out-right, even though it has been developed to be accessible.

    Part of moving forward I believe is more direct engagement with the community of end-users with disabilities, including the full range from novice to advanced users to better understand expectations and possibly to communicate limitations based on what can practically be done today.

    Jennison

    3 Jun 09 at 11:09 pm

  4. >Accessibility and disability awareness is not part of everyone’s everyday experience. The cultural dialogue about basic human rights is ongoing…we’re still debating if accessibility is even a human right! Until it is assumed that every web site, every web application, every web service must be accessible, this gap will exist.

    So true; raising awareness of the issue is arguably as big a fight as figuring out the solution! There are such misconceptions about what accessibility is, and so many developers who never even consider asking a client if it’s a consideration.

    I’d love to believe that if we figured out the best implementation, that things would just be incorporated. But people don’t even get the ‘accessibility best practices’ from 1996 correct..

    Andrea Hill

    4 Jun 09 at 5:10 am

  5. I think that the main problem is that developers (expecially web application developers, that are the first that need to apply accessibility guidelines for help to have Web 2.0 – “User Generated Content” accessible) read only the guidelines and success criteria of WCAG 2.0 and they don’t read why we have ask to apply these success criteria (reading the understanding WCAG 2.0 document). I’ve seen this in a lot of courses where I teach here in Italy and I think that there is a need of something like “WCAG 2.0 by examples”, a quicktips guide for developers that have no time (or don’t want) for read all the WCAG guidelines, success criteria and techniques but can be interested to apply something if they can find useful for someone.

    Roberto Scano

    4 Jun 09 at 5:56 am

  6. Regarding the web developers, in many (but not all cases), I anticipate that they are working under tight timelines, with accessibility being one (but not the only) requirement they need to balance and satisfy. Sometimes they are executing on designs that have already been agreed to elsewhere. They turn to guidelines for the “hows,” without having necessarily the luxury of time to read up on the “whys.”

    Jennison

    4 Jun 09 at 11:48 am

  7. I think most of the reason people are hung up on guidelines is that they don’t really understand the impact of what they’re doing so they don’t know how to do any better than checklists.

    I know of several people who are committed to accessibility as a concept and work on fairly large web-based development projects who have never witnessed a blind person using a screen reader, or a physically disabled person accessing a keyboard with a switch interface. The developers, having no personal knowledge of what their efforts actually do and mean to people, don’t really understand what they’re doing. And it isn’t their fault.

    I think we need more information around showing people with disabilities using the technology. Firstly, specific videos by people with a range of disabilities showing the effects of accessible, partially accessible, and inaccessible technology, showing and discussing how difficult it is for us to work around inaccessibility. And also we need videos such as those at http://www.assistiveware.com/videos.php which show the effects that accessibility can have in changing people’s entire lives.

    If I didn’t have an accessible computer set-up (I have a bunch of assistive technology of various types) and access to the internet the only activities I’d be able to do would be listening to the radio, CDs, and talking books, and talking on the phone if I had a phone headset. With this computer/internet setup I can – and do – build websites, interact socially, teach people about accessibility, be an advocate for myself and others, and in generally participate in and contribute to society. But I really don’t think that most people, even most developers who are committed to accessibility, understand the extent of the difference it can make. Go watch those videos I linked up there – they’re all about AssistiveWare software which I happen to think is great, but they also tell and show you how computer access has completely changed people’s lives. That’s really important for developers to know at a gut level.

    Ricky Buchanan

    4 Jun 09 at 12:05 pm

  8. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

    I wonder if people get caught up in the pendantic nitpicking because they are genuinely trying to learn about the issues? Or are they looking for reasons to avoid making something accessible? I suspect both cases (and various others) exist.

    There is obviously a need for more information and resources. Thank you for your suggestions. Who should be providing these resources?

    wendy

    4 Jun 09 at 5:14 pm

  9. “I wonder if people get caught up in the pendantic nitpicking because they are genuinely trying to learn about the issues? Or are they looking for reasons to avoid making something accessible? I suspect both cases (and various others) exist.”

    I suspect neither. I’m reminded of the saying that a little knowledge is dangerous, and this is a case in point. The focus on inessential hyper-detail is simply a self-demonstration of ‘expert knowledge’. They really do believe and are convinced that these tiny nits are just as important as the real issues.

    Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned they may be, it becomes an obstruction to the creation of real accessible sites. They become caricatures of the myths and misconceptions around web accessibility.

    Remember the endless posts we wrote expounding that accessible websites don’t mean just black and white, no design, no images? That’s where these nitpicks will end up.

    ‘There is obviously a need for more information and resources. Thank you for your suggestions. Who should be providing these resources?’

    More information and resources – no. We need better quality information and resources. We need to jealously protect the conversations that are going on right now.

    And to be honest, I think the accessibility community that’s forming through Twitter is proving to be a fertile ground for exceptional insight and ideas around web accessibility. It’s untarnished by the forum and mailing list trolls. And with people like Laura Carlson and yourself there’s a steady stream of peer-reviewed material every single day. Peer-reviewed in that a simple retweet is a recommendation/or a positive gesture.

    I’ve been so amazed at the quality of discussions from some obviously talented people in and around accessibility on Twitter that I’ve been spending bits of time trying to figure out how to aggregate and collect this information to somewhere useful. And more importantly, figure out who are the real mavens and connectors in accessibility.

    Where Twitter succeeds is that people follow others who provide a good stream of signal. And the noise – the constant hyper-attention to inessential nits – is met by unfollowing, and the 140 character barrier.

    I used to think we needed an organisation to promote web accessibility, but not any more. The accessibility community on Twitter is self-organising, and growing in terms of numbers and quality every day. We don’t need organisation, we just need to be left alone to have our conversations.

    Mike.

    Isofarro

    4 Jun 09 at 8:52 pm

  10. I appreciate this dialogue. And agree with Ricky and the others who have said understanding the reason for web accessibility is equally important, if not more important, than guideline compliance. Guidelines are just that – guidelines. Sometimes its necessary to fudge them in order to have an accessible site. But people don’t understand that; they want the quick, absolute answer – the top ten ways to make a site accessible.

    I like Mike’s notion that we don’t need an organization to promote web accessibility, but rather a community that is constantly communicating, exchanging and advocating. And, we, people with disabilities need to keep speaking out about how we rely on the Internet and the barriers we face. People are beginning to take notice!

  11. Wendy, I think you found the most effective way to boost the message in the promotional message for your new book:

    “Universal Design for Web Applications teaches you how to build websites that are more accessible to people with disabilities and explains why doing so is good business. It takes more work up front, but the potential payoff is huge — especially when mobile users need to access your sites.”

    I’m teaching my co-workers at a large government agency how to create accessible documents in Microsoft Word. (Almost every one of our 3,000 employees produces Word documents. We have to get them to consistently create accessible documents or we will never get where we need to be.)

    I have found in teaching my class that interest builds into sustained enthusiasm when I point out the features of accessible documents that I call “curb cuts”:
    • You can generate a document map and use it to both review the structure of your document and navigate quickly to any part you need to review. Conceivably, this would make it possible to use even large Word documents easily on a cell phone, PDA, or iPod (if it isn’t already).
    • You can stop Word from trying to outguess your intentions, so you will have more control over your document’s final format.
    • Formatting changes that are difficult to accomplish in documents that are inaccessible become trivial tasks when the document is made accessible.
    • Accessible documents can easily be converted into other electronic formats.

    Another thing we need to do is take a close and careful look at what I call “the usability of accessibility.” By that, I mean whether the writer’s or developers tools are optimized to support creating accessible information.

    We are still using Word 2003 and will continue to do so for months, if not years. Unless you customize your copy of Word 2003, the Standard and Formatting toolbars are available by default. Together they form a minefield for creating accessible documents. By my count, the Mac version of the Formatting toolbar has:
    • 11 buttons that lead us to create documents that are *less* accessible
    • 1 button that leads us to create documents that are *more* accessible
    • 10 buttons that, so far as I can tell, have no impact on accessibility either way

    The Standard toolbar (again, Mac version) is mostly neutral. Still, more buttons lead us *away* from accessibility (three) than lead us *towards* it (two).

    So I don’t just teach my co-workers to create accessible documents — I give them a tool that makes creating accessible documents easier. On it I have placed 20 buttons that lead them towards creating accessible documents and another 10 buttons that have no effect on the accessibility of the documents they create but make Word much easier for them to use. It has no buttons that would lead them away from creating an accessible document.

    So they leave the training understanding these points:
    • For us, accessibility is the law.
    • The law was written to ensure that people who have disabilities can share experiences we take for granted.
    • By following the law, we will make our jobs easier *and* ourselves more productive.
    • If we make our documents fully accessible, we open the possibility of even greater benefits for everyone in the future.
    • For the most part, achieving accessibility is easy with the right tools.
    • For the few instances where achieving accessibility is difficult, there is not only WCAG 2.0 but also a Worldwide Web of resources to help us find a good answer.

    With that knowledge, most of them no longer feel helpless and imposed upon when it comes to meeting requirements for accessibility. Instead, they feel capable, empowered, and even enthusiastic.

    So think about it — how can you make accessibility not only more appealing but also more doable for those around you?

    How can you make their tools more usable when the target is accessibility?

    Solve those issues, and we’ll spend a lot less time chasing our tails.

    Cliff Tyllick

    7 Jun 09 at 11:49 pm

  12. Not convinced by the argument that web accessibility is stuck in 1998 while web development in 2012. In my experience the vast majority of web developers including agencies, are not considering accessibility or are only paying it lip service. When it is considered it is often a bolt on accessibility testing phase which of course can identify issues that can be addressed, but is often too late in the process for things to be changed significantly.
    I don’t think there is anything wrong with using the guidelines, but of course they are only guidelines and not the whole story. I do believe that without them though, things could be much worse.
    Accessibility often involves compromises, for example one persons high contrast, easily readable text, is another persons worst nightmare.
    Technology is moving on though and better accessibility is getting more achievable (tempered by the challenges posed by the pace of change).
    I do think that the some of the guidelines are difficult to understand and follow and as has been pointed out in other comments, not enough is made of the reasons behind some of them.

  13. Well, I can agree with the previous reader. His positions seems to be really reasonable to me. Thank you!

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