Accessibility charlatans

Accessibility is being mentioned more and more in fairly mainstream media here in Sweden. Lately I’ve seen two articles in Swedish press, and while it is good that accessibility is getting some attention, the incompetence with which it is talked about really upsets me.

Journalists don’t seem very interested in checking even the most basic facts before publishing articles on accessibility. Some articles are more or less press releases from companies boasting how they have started catering to disabled Internet users, and how they comply with such-and-such accessibility standards. Which they rarely, if ever, do if you look just a little closer.

Scratch the surface and you can see that behind all that nice talk are companies that don’t really care about or understand web accessibility or disabled users. They’re just looking to get some press so people will have heard of them. Then they go on with their old-fashioned ways of invalid, inaccessible markup, making quick and easy money.

Last week, the weekly paper Ny Teknik published the article Staten höjer kraven till nästa ramavtal (The government is raising the demands for the next blanket agreement). In the article, a person working on the website of a Swedish municipality is quoted as saying By fully accommodating disabled people, the effect may be that other areas will be neglected (my translation).

Well, yes, if you take things to the extreme, that can be true. However, it is very rarely necessary, and in my opinion only indicates that said person has not fully understood the concept of web accessibility.

Today, Swedish Internetworld magazine also published an article on accessibility, Var tionde svensk kan inte använda webben (Every tenth Swede can’t use the web). In the article, a spokesman for a company claiming to have developed a method of testing how accessible websites are to disabled people, makes the following statement:

Depending on the disability there are different assistive devices to make surfing the web easier. But for these to work, the site owner has to have entered the correct meta tags. That’s exactly what we are measuring in the test.

Right. So now all we have to do to make a website accessible is enter the correct meta tags? I’m more surprised that the editor allowed this to be published than that someone is trying to take advantage of the fact that most people know very little about web accessibility. With accessibility being a requirement for public office websites it was bound to happen, and this isn’t the first I have seen of it.

What pisses me off the most is not that these accessibility charlatans are stealing potential clients. It’s that I care about web standards and accessibility because I want to build a better web. If I can make some money while doing that, great. The charlatans on the other hand are only in it to make money. That’s a considerable difference if you ask me.

There really needs to be some way for people who aren’t familiar with web accessibility to weed out the bullshitters. Any ideas on how we can accomplish that?

Posted on February 9, 2005 in Accessibility, Web Standards


  1. In the netherlands we have a gorvernment backed certificate. Much like the U.S. 508 stuff.Also the certification is hosted by an istitute for the blind. The people issueing the certificates really know what they’re doing. As my coworkers found out when then tried to make a microsoft CMS site accessible.

    Also: If you want acccessible sites, don’t use the current generation of microsoft CMS software (>.>).

  2. The german government passed a law that websites for public authorities and civil services must be accessible at a very high degree. So for building public websites, strict guidelines must be accomplished: BITV (in english)

    The problem is, whether or not these requirements will be verified by quailified authority… i am not sure about this.

  3. It would seem most governments include some provision of accessibility for govt web sites. In Canada, the CLF Common Look and Feel Guidelines dictate this.

    In Canada, a great deal of what appears in the paper is essentially PR. You may see an article discussing Topic A but it’s essentially a “reporter” having talked to one or two companies and creates an article based on the information those companies provide them. Other times, the stuff you see is simply rewritten press releases.

    There’s really no validation, nor do I really think that it’s possible. To put out that much content on that many topics every day would be extremely difficult to fact check everything.

    Maybe that’s why I no longer read the paper… or much of the news, for that matter.

  4. February 9, 2005 by Guilherme Mendes

    Here in Brazil, we’ve the same problem… A lot of “press releases articles” that only helps the companies/”experts” and confuse the public and clients.

  5. A couple of comments about accessibility in Government departments.

    One issue is that accessibility is as much about content as it is about design. Accessible page layouts/templates are a good starting point, but poorly marked up content (eg. tables, abbreviations, links, etc) will destroy that good work as the page won’t meet accessibility standards. Now, the pace of life in the public sector (eg. unreasonable Ministerial demands) mean that it is very hard to guarantee accessibility.

    Unfortunately, the plain truth is that our bosses will sacrifice accessibility for instant response despite all of their lip service to equal access for all.

    Secondly, accessibility itself seems to be a moving feast. We’ve been working with a leading organisation in accessibility to improve our online report for the last 3 years. Each year’s consultation raises different accessibility problems and techniques.

    This means that accessibility is a moving feast. I therefore think about accessibility as a journey of improvement, rather than a goal I will reach one day. I get angry when I read media reports about such-and-such a site not being accessible - unless you have a completely static site, whether or not you are totally accessible on any given day is less important than actually trying to improve your site.

  6. Thanks for the tip about the meta tags, I’ll be sure to add <meta name=”accessible” content=”true”> to all my pages in the future! :-)

  7. My confidence in Swedish journalists reached zero several years ago. Where once there was a deep sense of professional pride, it now seems to be only a matter of seeing your name and/or face in print. It’s gone from exposing the truth to getting one’s 15 minutes of fame.

    The myth that (reasonable) accessibility is difficult and expensive is still being spread. That’s nothing but F.U.D. Making a site that works in any browser and with any assistive technology isn’t very difficult, assuming you already know to use web standards.

    There are areas where it takes more skill and more resources: making content accessible to people with severe cognitive disabilities or severe special learning disorders requires a lot more than good markup and style.

  8. In Norway we recently had an evaluation and ranking of many public and government web sites. One of the criterias was accessibility.

    The site that received highest accessibility ranking was Statens jernbanetilsyn. Can’t say that I’m impressed.

  9. February 10, 2005 by Valter

    Perhaps they don’t mean only tags when talking about meta tags… but, say, also alt attributes for images, summaries for tables, you know. But of course that is only a part of accessibility so they are still off topic.

  10. February 10, 2005 by Valter

    I mean, perhaps they are not talking only about html meta elements. Blasted be this markup language…

  11. I cannot say; I was impressed with ‘Statens jernbanetilsyn’ accessibility either and that was from just a preliminary scan - black hyperlinks and such nested in black text.

    I don’t rely on Bobby and other such automated tools; that’s what basically happened when I persuaded PCW Magazine (Personal Computer World - UK’s best selling monthly computer magazine) to cover an article on Accessibility last April. Unfortunately they fell into the trap of focusing on the Blind. Though now they do seem to mention accessibility more regularly in passing in the magazine.

    There are many different disabilities not just visual; that just generalises what many people can do “close their eyes” to the bigger picture.

    Can we bring back burning at the stake of the Accessibility Buzzword Marketing Charlatans they seem to be breeding like rabbits and are considered vermin.

    The problem is ignorance is breeding ignorance about the topic just because many people are too lazy to look beyond their own noses.

  12. If I insert into an accessible document, will it cease to be accessible? Or will the accessibility and non-accessibility cancel each other out, leaving me with nothing at all?


  13. In Italy we have a new law - “Legge Stanca n. 4 january 9 2004” - about web accessibility. This law says that every P.A. has to follow accessibility guidelines if they have to create a new website or remake an old one. And this is true also if you make a website for the Public Administration. There is a committee responsible for testing accessibility of this kind of websites and if you don’t pass their examination you can’t receive a sort of “accessibility coupon” you can put on your site. But the real important thing is that P.A. managers are responsible for any possibile unaccessibile website they’ve ordered; there is a managerial and disciplinary responsibility. And if you make an unaccessible wbesite for a P.A. you make it at you own risk: you will not receive any money because this kind of contract is invalid by law. Now we are waiting to see if they will ensure this law is respected or if this is another typical italian law… I don’t work with P.A. so I can’t say you if they check web accessibility for real and the right way (i.e. if they use accesibility guidelines that make sense and not only accessibility meta tags ;)

  14. February 10, 2005 by Mariano

    Accesibility charlatans? Two of them: MiniD and Geek Online. So pathetic…

  15. I have to comment on #8 - the winning site was Statens forurensningstilsyn (pollution/environment authorities, not the railway one..).

    By the way, I work as the webmaster at Bergen University College, which made it to #2 in the rankings ;-)

  16. Journalists don’t seem very interested in checking even the most basic facts before publishing articles on accessibility.

    In my experience, journalists don’t check even the most basic facts before publishing any article…

    It has nothing to do with accessibility.

  17. February 10, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Many countries have accessibility requirements of one kind or another for government and public service websites. The problem is enforcing them.

    Paul: I’m guessing <meta name=”accessible” content=”false” /> or something similar was dropped from your comment ;-)

    (I also need to take yet another look at my commenting system. Grr.)

  18. I never spoke about accessibility on my web site (geekonline). I spoke about usability… so mariano: “shhhh”.

  19. Roger, why not drop a brief note to the publications concerned pointing out that there were errors in the articles. Say just enough to establish your own credentials, and that you’d be happy to provide some accurate, free editorial on accessibility. If they take you up on it, you kill two birds with one stone: spread the message, and get some publicity for yourself!

  20. Sorry, no there’s no way to make sure. It’s just the same as with any other place in society, and the reason we have democracy and capitalism. Not because it’s good (because it’s not, not even close) but because it puts a certain minimum level on just how much it can suck. Incompetence can’t be measured properly, so you design around it.

  21. It is very difficult to tell charlatans and evangelists apart, especially for decision makers and people not involved in accessibility on a daily basis as most of us here. Several projects across europe try setting up a certificate for accessibility. Recently in Germany we found us confronted with a press release of one of the most popular organizations for accessibility, the AbI-Projekt. They are some kind of interface between government, all kinds of associations (especially for handicapped people) and agencies. The press release said that they are going to promote the development of a certificate - without discussing that issue with their supporters (we are one, so we would have known if it was discussed).

    Our point is that it is barely impossible to have a certificate based on WCAG1 and maybe it will still be impossible with WCAG2 when applying it on a whole website (talking about really big websites). What other options do we have?

  22. Good comment, I agree completely but we cannot just blame the big Boss because most of the time, they don’t even know what they are selling, or even what is accessibility (actually, here in Canada, we don’t hear that very often, right now it’s about Semantic, which is use every minute).
    I met technical staff in those big companies who were affraid of W3C because of a lack of understanding. And some were really agressive on the subject. It’s not really because they don’t care it’s because the Boss don’t and they don’t want to pay for a formation. They hire good people but then, they do the same stuff the same way and the first thing you know, many years have passed.

  23. This problem is everywhere.

    Recently in Poland <b>ed’n’<br />eakfast markup government portal announced that it’s disabled-people-firendly.

    Their website has frames, tables, flash, requires js, doesn’t use H tags, breaks in res. below 1024x768.

    Only thing that they did is writing a special “profile” script for closed-source 3rd party voice browser (free, thanks to government sponsoring). I must say that browser works well on this webiste, but doesn’t read any normal “non-profiled” websites, including its own!

    But even government portal and browser maker fell for a stereotype that all disabled web users are blind…

    [OT: this textarea removes/ignores entities like lt,gt.]

  24. Ignore entities comment. I always notice notes after posting ;)

  25. Just my teeny contribution: Hyfinity advertise themselves as accessibility professionals, yet their home page uses 100% non-semantic markup! Quite an achievement, IMO.

  26. Yes, it’s the same problem we have with SEO charlatans. It’s very easy to blind people with ‘science’ they don’t understand. I think we might even begin to see Usability charlatans soon as well. I guess it’s human nature to make money from ignorance. Shame.

  27. May 25, 2005 by Fredrik

    Just look at the Swedish Government homepage. They have a “Read Aloud” function, which however requires the user to get through nearly a full document of non-valid HTML 4.01 and lots of tables.

    Again, some charlatan in the works. The site isn’t any more accessible, blind people have their own tools. Dyslectics will probably rejoice over the function, but still, if these dyslectics have other tools at their hands the function is utterly useless.

  28. In Belgium you have the Blindsurfer label ( As far as I know, it’s one of the most professional and not-for-profit organisations dealing with accessibility certification in Belgium. I’m reading now that there is also a European initiative at As the last event and press release dates back to 2003, I’m not so sure on how active this group is. Anyway, I think we’ve come a long way in certification and requirements. As I recall it was once required to have every spacer image holding an alt tag indicating clearly that is was an ‘image for layout purposes’. Those were also the table-layout days; for me, not so long ago.

    I am working for the International Diabetes Federation, and in my quest towards accessibility I encounter a number of hurdles. A lot of you probably face the same problems.

    The easiest, or should I say clearest, one was moving to CSS layouts. (for those Sherlocks out there: yes, I know, the main site is still 100% table layout. Hopefully not for long). Certainly with new sites, switching from table layouts to CSS is just another way of working. It’s technical, clear, it works or it doesn’t.

    Next step: trying to make the sites validate. I say trying, because without a standards compliant CMS there is no guarantee of how the final html will be generated. My option there was doing a lot of regular expressions and search and replace before the page is displayed. I have now implemented html tidy into one project, and it does some marvellous things to the html code (e.g. My aim now is xhtml 1.0 transitional.

    A site that validates isn’t the same as an accessible site. Problems I’m facing to get to accessibility are more or less:

    • CMS not always helping things forward
    • staff/editors that need to be aware that images need a description, and preferably a decent one
    • so many guidelines, sometimes contradicting each other
    • where to start? what to prioritise?

    For me, accessibility is a very vague concept. I’m not disabled, not used to a screen reader, not using tools for visually impaired. I focus on the visual aspect, next at the usability. After that it is very tempting, certainly after a couple of days programming or weeks after a site has gone live, to loose accessibility out of sight.

    I’m reluctant to go to a company, as (1) it might be a challenge to find a company that goes beyond the ‘have alt-text’ rules and (2) our sites change and ideas change, it’s an ongoing thing and we need ongoing feedback. What I’ll probably set up is a kind of survey or call for feedback, asking people that have a certain disability what we can improve that will actually help them. Anyone reading this and willing to help out: please feel free to contact me on

  29. yes, this is a germans-press problem, too. i post it last month at the that here in germany at the press people and journalist will talk about accessbility; but they didn’t have create once a website.

    they wrote at march that you make things better, so; but in april they write it is better so;

    they didn’t will analyse what they write; because the press must be large. that is the problem.

    bust our luck is, that we have the internet and we can learn from our self….i didn’t bought this presses at the future, because it only the same what they will wrote..


  30. Well, I wrote some of the guidelines W3C published. I am on the steering committee of EuroAccessibility (I can’t say I am impressed with its progress, but that is in part due to a past chair not releasing any information on how to update the website for over a year, nor doing so himself. I do hope to see some progress again this year). I worked at W3C in the WAI, I have worked with companies trying to make sites accessible, and make tools accessible. I am part of the development team of an open source accessibility testing tool (Hera, developed in Spanish) and vice-president of a spanish non-profit that really doesn’t make a profit, whose goal is distributing information and providing a forum for discussing accessibility. I created the first french-language accessibility forum I have seen. I have taught accessibility in four languages on five continents. I first worked on software accessibility in 1984, on Web accessibility in 1997, and I still have a lot to learn. But I think I know a few things about it.

    (Opera, where I started working recently - not on accessibility - knows that most people with disabilities are not blind. Lucky, because unfortunately at the moment our screen reader support isn’t up to scratch, despite our superb accesssibility support in some other areas. Nobody’s perfect, and accessibility is a journey, as has been noted. We’re working on it…)

    Accessibility is a moving target. More techniques are discovered, more research is done, users get newer software (at a changing rate. The rich few upgrade every couple of months. The majority are stuck with old systems that are well behind the times, especially if they are relying on IE to support a screen reader.

    Sites are improving, on average. Knowledge is improving slowly too. Lies in marketing are always ahead, but some of the dumbest ideas and some of the worst liars are being weeded out by spreading knowledge and awareness. Some of them, of course, will continue to fool us. (I prefer to think that while I can be prey to dumb ideas I am able to see through most of the actual charlatans out there).

    There is a lot of lip service. There are a lot of companies who got sold the lie that accessibility is a product that you bolt on to your system, rather than a part of design, like making a safe spacecraft (only it isn’t rocket science so much as sensible design principles, common sense, and basic research. Wait on, so is rocket science… :-), and when they find out it isn’t they haven’t got the resources, let alone the resolve to go the journey again from the beginning, so they end up tinkering, and hopefully in the next round they start to get serious.

    We’re talking in many cases about changing a culture. Microsoft used to boast that about 1995 it turned into an internet company almost overnight, shifting on a dime. Anyone who has used their products (especially the ones they make annd were already making, not the ones they have bought from internet companies) knows that while they made a smart shift in direction, there might be a little bit of marketing hyperbole in the claim. It does take time to get it right.

    To train people, or find people who obviously know what they are doing, to examine the processes that go into a web site and how to ensure that they support accesssibility, to get tools that don’t break it and help instead. All of these things take time like moving companies towards the internet in the first place takes time. The real questions are “are they on the right road” and “who is navigating”? Too often, the answers are “trust us, of course we are” and “the same guy we are renting the car and buying the petrol from, because the people we are taking home are busy trying to work the stereo or the seatbelt”.

    This is an area where standardisation, benchmarking, and making sure that the right people are being asked the right questions is important. And unfortunately very slow.

    It’s a challenge to make it happen. It’s difficult to seperate the wheat from the chaff, and hard work to keep up with the flow. But it’s rewarding to realise that every so often you do something that actually makes people’s lives better. After all, accessibility is about a system allowing people to do things, and what engineer can resist fixing a system that doesn’t work?

    What surprises me is the ease with which we forget that, and think it is about markup, or machines, or meeting minimum standards.

    -Chaals (Yes, I know, some of us engineers are quite fond of people too. Some of my best friends are people)

  31. The key is not whether a site is accessible or not, but whether a site is useable or not.

    Accessibility is a case of meeting the relevant WAI, RNIB, s508, etc requirements. Useability is the measure of benefit that disabled users can from the site.

    Test your own sites using a screenreader and see what it’s like.

  32. April 25, 2006 by jbot

    Did it never occur to you that you may also be considered somewhat a charlatan. I mean to say, one thing which determines how a website’s accessibility is how easy it is for non-visual users to navigate it.

    Ordinarily users would scan the page, skimming the links to see where next to go. But if you’re relying on a screenreader you can’t do this as easily or quickly. Instead you have to listen out for the links. Now, if there’s too many of them on any given page, then surely it becomes much much harder for non-visual users to scan quickly through the links and therefore the content.

    My point is, whilst content is king, having too much content on the one page or lined off the page, can also be detrimental to the accessibility of the site. For instance, this page (at time of typing) has 174 links. How can that be accessible if the user finds there’s too much going on to get through it all. Yes, a screenreader might be able to actually read the page properly, but if the user is unable to make use of that information they may as well not have as much access to it. We want our users to get the information they want; we don’t want to overburden with it all the same.

  33. April 25, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    jbot: Point taken. I am well aware that most pages on this site contain lots of links, and I am looking at ways of reducing the number of links.

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