Accessibility myths and misconceptions

Awareness of web accessibility is increasing, slowly but surely. You can read about it on mainstream websites and in printed newspapers. Here in Sweden you can even read about web accessibility on the back of milk cartons. Accessibility getting more attention is excellent, but it’s very unfortunate that in many cases the information being spread is inaccurate and misleading.

Misconceptions about web accessibility are very common. What’s even worse is that it’s also common to see people trying to take advantage of the low knowledge of accessibility among those responsible for websites. It’s a disgusting trend that I wrote about some time ago in Accessibility charlatans.

I’d like to talk about a few of these accessibility misconceptions, and hopefully provide information that helps explain why these myths are just myths. Feel free to use this as a checklist when explaining web accessibility to someone. If you happen to be on the buying end, use it to ask relevant questions to anyone that tries to sell accessibility services to you or your company.

Accessibility is just for blind people

While it’s true that the blind and vision impaired are an important target group and among those that benefit most from it, web accessibility is about more than making it possible for blind people to access information. Much more.

Web accessibility is about building websites that work regardless of which web browser or operating system you’re using, and regardless of any disability you might have. It’s about respecting different peoples’ different needs and personal preferences. Not everybody uses the web in the same way, with the same equipment.

Accessible websites maximise the number of possible visitors and are easier for everybody to use, disabled or not. This includes search engine robots – blind or severely vision impaired visitors that you definitely do not want to prevent from accessing your site.

Accessible websites are ugly and boring

Yes, some definitely are. There are also millions of completely inaccessible websites that are dull and lifeless. Accessibility in itself has nothing to do with whether a site is boring and ugly or not. A lack of understanding of what accessibility is and how to make a website accessible can, on the other hand, result in a site that is not very visually attractive.

Accessibility does not mean removing all colour and graphics. What it does mean is thinking about how colour is used and providing alternative content for images and other graphical objects that are informational or functional.

Ugly or not – no matter what a website looks like, in most cases the content is what’s most important. Maybe not to the website owner and probably not to the designer, but definitely to the site’s visitors.

Accessibility is expensive and difficult

Retrofitting full accessibility into a large and completely inaccessible website can in some cases be difficult, expensive, and take a long time, that much is true. But if you know how accessibility works and do things the right way from the beginning, the costs involved are very much negligible. Plus you greatly reduce the risk of having to rebuild the site after a couple of years, either because of changes in browser technology or because legislation requires it.

Building an accessible website will save you money in the long run.

Unfortunately it’s still quite unusual for web professionals to have adequate skills in web accessibility, so the real problem may be finding an accessibility-savvy web design firm.

Offering a text-only version is good enough

Some believe that by offering a text-only version of their website they no longer need to make their main site accessible. That is incorrect.

Text-only versions are not a good idea, for several reasons:

  • They often lack information and functionality that the main website has.
  • They cause problems with search engines since content is duplicated – which version should people coming to the site from search engines get?
  • Text-only versions segregate their intended audience – people with disabilities.
  • It can be difficult to find the link to the text-only version.
  • There is no guarantee that the text-only version is accessible.

Besides, a site that offers a text-only version is even more likely to be inaccessible to many who do not have a disability – for example anyone using an alternative web browser, people who have JavaScript turned off or have set their browser to not display images. And to search engine robots. Why? Because the developers may be tempted to ignore all accessibility and other good practice guidelines for the main version since they have a supposedly accessible text-only version.

Only if all else fails is an alternative, text-only version acceptable. And I find it hard to imagine such a situation.

Customisation and read-aloud functionality

While offering visitors customisation options – for instance making it possible to change text and background colours, font and font size – is good, unfortunately such options are, at least in Sweden, often used as an excuse for not doing anything about a website’s fundamental problems. There are many sites that have useless customisation possibilities – useless because the foundation is so shaky that being able to change a few colours and increase text size only makes the site marginally more accessible.

Increasing text size, by the way, is something that just about anyone using the web is able to do without the site providing a special function for it. Even Internet Explorer for Windows can do that if you change its preferences to allow for it. Informing visitors of how to make those changes is probably not enough, but if more sites made that information available, more people would become aware of the possibility.

Offering customisation options is not a bad thing to do. On the contrary – it is a very good thing. But it isn’t the first thing to do when a improving a site’s accessibility. It’s better to make sure the site has a solid and sound foundation to build on.

Some sites have functionality that lets the visitor listen to the content. It’s an interesting add-on that may be useful to some groups of visitors but just a gimmick to others. As with customisation options for the site’s visual appearance, there is nothing wrong with offering such functionality. However, it’s better to take care of the basic problems first and then spend whatever time and money is left on bells and whistles.

Interesting. I want to learn more.

Good! Knowledge will help you see through misconceptions and misinformation, and will enable you to make better decisions.

Here are a few excellent resources for anyone interested in learning more about web accessibility:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
The current W3C guidelines that explain how to make Web content accessible to all users.
Access Matters
A site that uses quizzes to explore web accessibility techniques and best practices.
Accessify.com
A collection of useful resources, links to accessibility sites, a discussion forum, and more.
Building Accessible Websites
The online version of Joe Clark’s very detailed book on accessibility. Even better, buy the book.
Dive Into Accessibility
An online book that explains why and how you can make your website more accessible.

Translations

This article has been translated into the following languages:

Posted on May 25, 2005 in Accessibility

Comments

  1. May 25, 2005 by Teddy

    Excelent article. I am trying to spread the word about accessibility and how to use it in some swedish webdevelopment-related forums for some time now. And this article is a another great resource to point them to for more info.

  2. May 25, 2005 by Johan Sjostrand

    It’s about respecting different peoples’ different needs and personal preferences.

    Word. This is what I’m trying to tell people all the time. Excellent article Roger.

  3. Very good, for the most part, Roger. But that claim that text versions “segregate” is absurd, sorry. That’s kind of like saying having a handicapped spot “segregates.”

    Your point is well-taken that even a text-only version can be inaccessible, and the presence of one shouldn’t be an excuse to do whatever one likes with the regular version.

  4. Accessible websites are ugly and boring.

    I think a good counter-example is Cameron’s site. Not many sites out there have such vibrant colours, but doing it while being AAA accessible is awesome. Just goes on to show that accessibility is not as restrictive as it’s perceived to be.

    As for text only versions of websites, I guess we have now moved on from that stage where sites had to have multiple versions of the same content. Any site that doesn’t cater to alternative browsers and isn’t printable only shows the lack of effort from the designer’s end.

  5. Great article, Roger! This is a very nice summary of the common misconceptions.

    @Tim G: I think that’s a bad analogy. A text-only version is more like having a special entrance for people in wheelchairs, but putting that entrance in a back alley next to the rubbish bins.

    @Prabath Sirisena: Cameron’s site is very nice, but it’s not AAA. It’s ‘approved’ as AAA by Bobby, which is something altogether different. Such an ‘approval’ is contingent on passing a number of manual checks that an automated tool cannot possibly perform. Cameron’s site fails at least checkpoint 14.2 (as does almost every site in existence, including mine and Roger’s).

  6. Well written piece Roger. Funny that the Ads by google you get on this page is to some charlatans.

  7. Nice roundup - I encounter these misconceptions on a regular basis, especially “accessibility is just too hard”.

    Text sites can be ok as a fail-safe, so long as they 100% mirror the original (or as close as possible)[we use a text alternative site at work]. I don’t know that it really creates segregation though; we found that plenty of non-disabled users prefer the text site because it loads so fast - not that the full version is that slow anyway :)

    The biggest problem I’ve seen is most text sites are manually created an invariably they fall behind; or people create a “text homepage” which just links to the rest of the non-accessible content.

  8. @Tommy and @Prabath: Out of idle curiosity I ran http://themaninblue.com/writing/ (which is the URL that Prabath gives) through WebXACT and found it only passes Priority 1, with three Priority 2 errors and two Priority 3 errors, plus there are still the manual checks to consider.

    I think that this is worth noting; evidentally parts of Cameron’s site are AAA approved, but it’s a risk putting that claim in a standard site footer, unless you know that every page on your site passes.

    Accessibility is a continual process, just like markup validation is; you can’t simply stamp ‘approved’ on your front page and then forget about it.

  9. Excellent article - I’ve forwarded it to every developer I know, since most of them still don’t really understand accessibility…

    I think too many people depend apon validators to tell them whether their site is accessible instead of spending a little time thinking about it. Personally, I find turning the stylesheet off periodically during development is a huge help. Such a tiny change in the way I design helped me to start seeing the “bigger picture”…

  10. @Tommy - Thanks for the clarification.

    @Paul - It was some time ago that I validated Cameron’s site, and took the word for it that it’ll always be valid. As you say, accessibility is very much a part of site maintenance too. This was quite an eye-opener for me.

  11. I flatly refuse to create sites without them being assessed by a person with disabilities; robots have their limitations and generally cannot be trusted to produce accurate results and certainly not to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Level Triple-A.

  12. The biggest problem in this ‘aware’ age is that accessiblity is almost tagged on to a project as an after thought so that companies can get their AAA badge.

    Countless hours and pounds could be saved if sites were developed with accessibility in mind from day one. This should be the goal of accessiblity evangelists.

  13. In Australia, where I live and work, it is legal requirement for all web sites to be accessible, although there is no definition of how accessible. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission are of the opinion that if a site passes Priority 1 then it is probably OK.

    This law has been in existence for over 10 years now and to date there have been only two prosecutions. Even government sites do not comply and no one cares.

  14. I’ve translated this article into german language, it can be found here: http://yatil.de/Webentwicklung/zugaenglichkeit-mythen-und-falsche-vorstellungen

  15. Richard - At a conference in Melbourne last year I asked about further cases in Australia. Something I hadn’t realised was that (apparently) once a strong precedent like Maguire vs. SOCOG has been set, many/most subsequent HREOC complaints are settled in arbitration or ‘informal’ proceedings; in which case we wouldn’t hear about them. So there may be plenty of activity, just nothing public. Or not, as the case may be.

    Also… the government has released definitions of what it means by ‘accessible’ (mostly for the purpose of tenders and audits, I suspect); but the documentation I’ve seen was unreadable. I think lawyers probably wrote it. Near as I could tell, you’d conform if you stick to W3C WAI/WCAG; but I could be wrong.

  16. May 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Tim G: Tommy’s text-only analogy is spot-on.

    Peter: Yeah it’s like writing about SEO.

    Ben: Right, if you absolutely must use a text-only version it has to be an exact mirror of the original content.

    paul: WebXACT (formerly known as Bobby) misses a lot of issues and warns about some things that aren’t really problems. It’s impossible to programmatically validate accessibility. But you knew that ;-)

    Andy: Right, that’s one of the things I’m fighting for.

    Eric: Great. Except somebody else was already working on a German translation ;-).

  17. Sorry, we should get organized better in some way. I’ll ask before translating in future.

  18. Regarding text-only and accessibility, I describe an accessible page as one that also is usable by those who need accessible web sites. For example, headings should be marked up properly. A sighted person will visually scan a page looking at the headings to see (1) if the page contains information they are looking for, (2) to zoom into a particular section of a page, (3) to return to reading where they left off, or any other reason. A person who uses a screen-reader, such as JAWS, can prompt the software to read out headings and essentially achieve the same results. Text-only pages, by this, I am assuming essentially the equivalent of a .txt file, which also is the assumption of those who create text-only pages, don’t have structured markup and therefore, screen-reader software, although they can “read” the page, they can’t skip through headings. Therefore, a text-only page is readable but not usable and therefore, in my mind, is not accessible either.

  19. May 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Eric: No problem. It’s always a good idea to ask before translating though :-).

    Jules: Good points.

  20. There are things one cannot repeat too often. Nice job, Roger.

  21. May 27, 2005 by Andrea Martines

    Great job Roger, as usual. Accessibility culture desperately needs exact and synthetic explanations like this one. What about an addictional item stating that “Accessibility is not just valid code and/or tableless design”? This is a common mistake leading agencies and accessibility dummies to solve the problem this way. The “accessible version” of a project is mostly translated as “the validated and tableless version”, that’s not obviously the case.

  22. May 27, 2005 by Anthony Dry

    Hi There.

    A very interesting article there and i agree for the most part. I am a web designer currently working in Liverpool for a firm who up until now was basing each client quote on a standard double A compliancy, which as a designer has at times caused a rift between us and the developers.

    You see while its quite fundamental and good practice to think about the wider audience, the client who pays for the job is just thinking about themselves as a promoted quality website. And although someone posted a link to a website they refer to as quite excellent in terms of AAA design, it is in my view still a very limited site in terms of graphic design.

    As a point i disagree with the notion that not all accessable websites are ugly because quite frankly a large majority are. Accessability DOES limit what you can do, maybe not in the future but in the present it does, and the problems we have had trying to come up with an exceptional wonderful designs and accessability have at times verged on breaking point.

    But rest assured as a designer myself i am very aware of the issues mentioned above and in each and every brief i attempt to adhere as much as possible to satisfying those standards. I think the problem lies in the technology currently available - i dont think its capable at the moment to cope with the high grade accessability standards without looking ‘not as good as it should be’ and agree with one of the comments above that this is an ongoing thing.

  23. Roger, almost everything you say rings true for me ‘cept one thing. Cost. For the most part, “accessibilizing” your site is something you should just do…and it won’t take you any longer to make it accessible (perhaps a tad longer, but not worth even counting compared to the benefits of being universally accessible).

    The exception - captioning video and transcribing audio. All I can say is those two items are big and expensive.

    I work at UT Austin and we are struggling with the resources to caption everything. Should we not make a live webcast of a meeting available because we don’t have it captioned?

    Ahhh…I best stop here before I get myself to0 excited about the topic on a Friday afternoon.

    (signed, the self-appointed accessibility goddess at UT Austin)

    P.S. So when did my state name become spam??? P.P.S. Oh my, I can’t even use my regular email address ‘cause your spam filter on tex@s is so tight! What ever has my state done to offend you (just kidding, i understand how evil spam can be).

  24. May 27, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Andrea: Good point about accessibility not being just valid code and tableless design. I see far too many people falling into that trap. Well, they usually settle for invalid, tableless design with a severe case of divitis and classitis.

    Anthony: Yes, a majority of today’s accessible sites are pretty “non-designed”. That does not mean they need to be. Could you give a couple of examples of cases where you’re limited by accessibility?

    goodwitch: Point taken. I have not considered audio and video here. I haven’t worked with either (accessibility-wise), but I realise it takes a lot of time to make audio and video accessible.

    Sorry about the spam filter. I got so fed up with people trying to advertise their online card games here, and it’s a shame one of them is named after your state.

  25. Checkpoint 14.2 Supplement text with graphic or auditory presentations where they will facilitate comprehension of the page.

    Someone, somewhere won’t get the point and there’s not much you can do about it so it’s a non-starter. Effective communication is only achieved with a response from the receiver to acknowledge understanding. 14.2 is really aimed at people with learning difficulties although it has a general benefit when the terms used are jargonistic. Even I’m visual. Forget books, where’s the film?

    Accessibility is just for blind people

    It’s a major assumption which I can sort of forgive because of the very medium the internet is carried on. Awareness is a problem. Milk cartons in Sweden eh?

    Offering a text-only version is good enough

    I would find that offensive. Websites are text aren’t they? Why send me elsewhere?

    Other

    This very day, yes today. I sat down, opened a bottle of red wine, picked up my local paper and read about the successes of a local web design agency and how they have expanded into web accessibility and search engine optimisation.

    Err… and this is to be celebrated?

    The guidelines are 6 years old and they were created due to problems that went even further back than that.

    I recently wrote up on the accessibility of CSS drop down menus and why I don’t use them. Too many people rely on the markup validation process and Bobby (or whatever it is now) to ensure compliance and accessibility.

    All it takes is a little thought, a little consideration for others. Sadly, few are that considerate. I’m as guilty as the next person.

    @Anthony Dry: Accessibility DOES limit what you can do. How exactly? Coming up with exceptional designs shouldn’t impose on the markup.

    @goodwitch: Captioning video and transcribing audio. If it can’t be done, it can’t be done. Cost is your barrier, accessibility is theirs. We all have problems. All you can do is work towards it.

    Most people I know that have trouble using the internet really don’t care enough to complain about things. My mother has a cataract forming so has lowered the brilliance on her monitor and enlarged the text size in her browser. If she can’t read something, she goes elsewhere and accepts it.

  26. Eddie: “Offering a text-only version is good enough > ‘I would find that offensive. Websites are text aren’t they? Why send me elsewhere?’”

    That’s not what Roger was talking about. He was talking about a text-only version of the web page - in other words, online, sans graphics, more reader-friendly.

  27. @Tim G: My point about effective communication ;) I did understand the gist. My argument is why should a website or page have a text-only version? Websites are text anyway. I’ve even seen plain text alternatives with no navigational assistance or anchors/headers to assist consumption of that resource.

    If you’re talking about a text-only HTML version with links and headers then surely it’s a standard site without a stylesheet (or at least a lite one) which comes back to my point as to why it’s needed in the first place.

  28. We’ve had problems with audio/video & accessibility before. In the end we added a note saying that we will be happy to provide a transcription upon request. It’s totally not perfect but was going to be cost prohibitive otherwise. If anyone asks then we’ll do it.

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