Does accessibility encourage discrimination?

The past few months I’ve seen a number of discussions on what the definition of web accessiblity actually is. There seem to be two camps. That in itself is worrying, since accessibility – at least in my opinion – should be a uniting force.

On the one hand there are those who define accessibility as being about disabled people only. On the other hand you have people that look at accessibility as providing equal access to the web for all people. So which is it?

Three people, all accessibility advocates for whom I have a great deal of respect, have added new fuel to the debate in the last couple of days. First Joe Clark, one of the most well-known accessibility advocates, stated in his article Facts and Opinions About PDF Accessibility that:

The goal of the accessibility advocate is to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, period.

Now, I can interpret that in at least two ways. The goal of the accessibility advocate is to:

  1. make it easier for people with disabilities to access not only HTML documents, but also documents of other formats that are common on the web.
  2. improve accessibility for people with disabilities, even if doing so decreases accessibility for other groups.

I don’t know which of these Joe means in the article. I’m guessing (and hoping) it is #1.

Anyway, that statement prompted Tommy Olsson, who interpreted the meaning of the above quote as #2 (Update: Well, not quite, see comment #8.), to respond with Et Tu, Joe?.

I solidly agree with Tommy on this one. Accessibility should be about giving all people access to information, regardless of any disabilities they might have and regardless of which device they are using to access the information.

Another perspective is given by Derek Featherstone in Accessibility and Availability, where he makes the following definitions:

relates to people with disabilities, a human rights issue
relates to interoperability, alternate devices/platforms, a choice issue

Those are probably reasonable definitions of the terms. And most accessibility advocates (including all that are mentioned here) really want both accessibility and availability. I just cannot understand those who find it OK to implement accessibility at the cost of availability.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this beacuse I, as a Mac user, am very used to (and extremely fed up with) being discriminated against, willfully or not, when using the web. With the narrow definition of accessibility as being only about disabilities, accessible websites may well be inaccessible to me. Weird.

Yes, I use Macs by choice, but I cannot easily switch to Windows because the way it works does not suit me ergonomically. Entering keyboard shortcuts in windows forces me to twist my hand and arm badly, I have a really hard time hitting things with the mouse since the cursor seems to fly around completely out of my control, etc. I could go on.

I could switch to Windows. It wouldn’t be impossible, but doing so would bring me great discomfort, physically and mentally. But it seems like some accessibility advocates feel it is OK to make me feel like a second class citizen by shutting me out of a site, as long as it is accessible to Windows-based screen reader users.

Is that really what accessibility should be about? If that is indeed the case, we need to find a good term that those of us who want the web to be accessible to all can use – something that includes accessibility, web standards, and interoperability. Complete accessibility? Platform-inclusive access? I don’t know. Do you?

Posted on August 25, 2005 in Accessibility


  1. I think you are right. Accessibility means access for everyone. The choice which operating system and browser you use is not important - it should always work.

  2. When I think of accessibility, I think of making the information available to everyone as best as possible. For instance, I have never used any kind of document that isn’t text/html and I like to keep it that way. By doing that, everyone can access the information with their own favorite browser on their own favorite OS without the need of another third-party application. That is my vision of accessibilty.

  3. Thinking of accessibility as “something ONLY for people with disabilities”, for one is showing the wrong mind-set. You have to create projects on the web for everybody, meaning cross-browser etc, and also meaning tabindexes and/or access key navigation for the guy who can’t fully use his right arm with the mouse. I mean you have to make things for everybody - just because somebody is disabled doesn’t mean they couldn’t be your client someday… or doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to veiw things properly on the web.

    And think if you built a site only with firefox in mind and the client says.. “hey the site is all messed up in IE” - how good does that look on you?

    Build sites for everybody in mind… That is all.


  4. I’ve noticed this too.

    At the end of the day people switch from Table Design to CSS Design so that the websites are accessible (for disabled users).

    Its not until they switch that they realise its infact easier (once you got the hang of it).

    So I think both statements are true of most CSS Coders at one point.

  5. August 25, 2005 by Kalle Wibeck

    I agree that there is a need to settle the terms once and for all. But I’m not sure that adding the term “availabilty” to the “name-calling” is any improvement, especially not since W3C already uses the term “Device Independence” for the broader meaning of accessibility.

    Not to mention the multilingual issues…

    Accessibility and Availability would both by translated into “tillgänglighet” in Swedish for instance…wouldn’t that make everything crystal clear to us Scandinavians ;)

    But there is absolutely a need for a fixed definition of the different levels of ambition when it comes to “letting people in”…

    // :) Kalle

  6. I can’t (and wouldn’t dare to) speak for Joe Clark, but I suspect that he does mean that availability is not the same as accessibility.

    In terms of saying something is accessible to disabled people, something that is legislated for, this is not a choice issue. I get the impression that he’s fed up with people confusing the two things, and using the accessibility to argue for ‘availability’.

    Personally, I do put interoperability as a very high priority, assuming there are common standards to use.

    I would not assume that Joe doesn’t, just that this article isn’t about that. After all, he’s a Mac user to…

  7. I remember reading the same ambiguity into Joe’s words but then in context I think it’s quite obviously #1 and not #2, in my opinion anyway. No doubt he’ll drop by to put us straight in laymans terms lol.

    I see accessibility as a moving bar I’m going to try to move towards with my skills base and that has to include everyone - define disabled? Technically I’m disabled actually, I’ve been on a disability pension, I’m astygmatic, I’m unfit and middle aged to boot lol. I guess I’m saying I’m in the accessibility for all camp but I have to admit I see it as more worthy to help a blind person cross the road than a drunk. No bad analogy.. sorry.

    I agree that we need to bring these two camps closer together with a more united, even if more flexible, view of accessibility in both current camps.

  8. I don’t think Joe Clark or any of the others in the ‘accessibility is only about disabilities’ camp really advocate techniques that help people with disabilities ‘even if doing so decreases accessibility for other groups.’

    What I think they’re saying is that it’s only important to consider people with disabilities, and that other factors such as device independence, low bandwidth, less common operating systems etc. are not important.

    I don’t pretend to understand that line of thinking, because, frankly, I can’t.

    For me, accessibility is about providing access to the widest audience possible. Redefining the word only causes harm and confusion.

    Making the web accessible to people with disabilities is very important. But why stop there? Why not make it more accessible to everyone? I just don’t get it.

  9. August 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Tommy: I don’t really believe they really would advocate such techniques either, because most of them are also big promoters of web standards.

    But there is a risk that people who do not (and don’t want to) use web standards will use that definition of accessibility to build sites that are accessible to all, as long as they use Internet Explorer on a Windows PC. And that sucks.

  10. I think one thing that should be made clear is that although we disagree how far the term of accessibility goes, the level at which Joe et al take it to is at least a damned sight better than those who do not consider accessibility at all. Estimating them at 100%, it’s just some of us want to take it to 110% / 120%.

    I feel for the most part the arguement is over semantics.

    If the WAI wish to concern themselves with acting on behalf of people with disabilities then that fine. No problem from me there, apart from this odd idea to allow badly formed code to be termed accessible if feel they are doing a good job in pretty much uncharted water. Also lets not forget that the knock on effect of their work helps those without disabilities as well.

    If the WAI or people on their behalf wish to hijack the word accessibility in all matters web then that doesn’t sit so well with me. They don’t cover everything required in my book to make a site accessible, and the criteria is to the widest possible audience. This is not a technical issue, it’s a gramatical one. Accessibility is not a technical term, WCAG / WAI etc. are and as such they should be used in the appropriate places. Also and this is where it falls down rather, accessibility is a subjective term - WAI / WCAG should be objective.

    That said I would consider that an accessible site would have to take into account the WCAG, but it would also have to take into account other matters.

    As a side note, I hate the term availability. There is something horribly modal about it. I managed to view your site 9/10 times so it’s highly available - doesn’t sit right.

  11. I need to make sure I have breakfast / cafiene before I post, I am sure things would make more sense then ;-)

  12. Roger,

    Sorry for going a bit off-topic here, but when it comes to your disliking about using Windows, it comes to what keybard you’ll use (there are terrific ergonomical ones) and the mouse pointer thing is just about settings.

    But in the end, of course you should use the OS you’re comfortable with and not being forced to use Windows because many web site developers don’t make the effort to make sure their web site is available to different setups than Windows and Internet Explorer.

    I’m pretty sure that accessibility isn’t about encouraging discrimination, but lately there have been some posts that could be interpreted in an ambivalent way.

    But in the end, accessibility and availability both, to me, reside under the same roof.

  13. August 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Richard: Hehe, I think your comment makes sense, caffeine induced or not :-).

    Robert: Yeah I know you can get a different keyboard :-) Can you get one where the Ctrl and Alt keys have changed places though? Using my little finger for keyboard shortcuts really hurts my wrist. I find using my thumb much more comfortable (on Macs most keyboard shortcuts involve pressing the command key right next to the space bar).

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that there are others who feel the way I do about this. And let’s all be friends :-).

  14. I’ve always thought that the most sensible way of thinking about accessibility is ‘ensuring your content is accessible to everyone, regardless of ability or technology’. This to me means that there is little difference between someone using JAWS and someone using a mobile phone to browse. Indeed, one of the benefits of building sites that are accessible to the first group is that they tend to be accessible to the second.

    The business case - so vital if we’re to convince the private sector that this is important - is helped massively by concentrating on these ‘high end’ users. Put bluntly, the prospect of being able to access your company’s site on a mobile phone is more interesting to a CEO than users with disabilities!

  15. heheh, you made me laugh Richard

  16. August 26, 2005 by Martin Smales

    Three keywords here: accessibility, availability and usability.

    If something becomes available, are you able to reach it? Therefore, it becomes an accessibility issue.

    If you are able to reach it, are you able to use it effectively? Therefore, it becomes a usability issue.

    People with mobility problems or people who are deaf (like myself) are not able to reach a mobile phone (for voice) in a way that many people can.

    And while people who can, they may still have problems getting a mobile phone to work with so few buttons.

    I noticed that “usability” is not mentioned once here which tend to be confused with “accessibility”.

  17. August 26, 2005 by Martin Smales

    I forgot to mention in my previous post.

    Accessibility does not infer disability by definition, but an ability to reach it.

    It can be expanded to include inhabitants of third-world countries who are as able-bodied as many of us do, still cannot access the web.

  18. I don’t think Joe Clark means that accessibility is about making content accessible to disabled users regardless of the impact on others. The way I read it, he is trying to make a clear definition of accessibility as being those requirements and methods that relate specifically to the needs of the disabled. Building sites so that they can be enjoyed on PDAs, mobile phones, or even internet fridges is a matter of interoperability, as these do not represent the typical browser/computer platform, but neither are they representative of the kind of assistive technologies employed by the disabled to help them access the web.

    Interoperability is a bit of a clunky word, though, and when talking to clients I generally decribe this as “compatibility”, and draw a distinction between that and accessibility. Clients can generally grasp that compatibility with a broad range of browsers, PDAs, phones, etc. means that the site content can be read in all of those devices, while “accessibility” means that necessary provisions have been made to make sure disabled users will be able to read it too, even if they use special hardware or software instead of, or in addition to, a web browser. (And in countries like the UK, accessibility is “the legal bit”, since Section 19 of our Disability Discrimination Act is deemed by the UK government and the Disability Rights Commission to apply to web sites.)

    I can’t say I’m keen on the term “availability”. Coming from an engineering background, availability means something different and quite specific to me. Put it this way: if your web server is up and running, and its connection to the internet is sound, then your web site will be available to anyone who has the necessary equipment to browse it — whether that person is disabled or not. If your server is futzed or its connection to the ‘net is down, then it isn’t available to anyone.

  19. At the risk of being flamed, I’m one of the people who believe that web accessibility is purely about ensuring that websites are usable for people with disabilities. This is the accepted meaning by the Web Accessibility Initiative, as defined in their introduction to web accessibility document.

    A side effect of ensuring that websites are accessible generally does improve access to all regardless of whether or not they have disabilities, but occasionally, some advice does have a negative effect on general usability. Probably the best example of this is checkpoint 10.4 of WCAG 1.0 (include default place-holding characters in edit boxes and text areas). That obviously has a negative effect to the majority of web users, but at the time WCAG 1.0 was published, was considered important (for reasons that no one seems to properly understand, but most likely to do with OutSpoken for the Mac on Netscape 2).

    I don’t know a single accessibility advocate that isn’t also a strong supporter of web standards, and best practice in general. If all user-agents and web developers follow web standards (semantically), most accessibility barriers are automatically removed, with some thought required for edge cases. We all want the web to be usable by all, regardless of whether or not visitors have disabilities.

  20. August 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Martin: Usability is also important, and I guess that is what is most likely to be affected when a site is made “accessible” by someone who does not care about web standards or interoperability.

    Gez: This whole argument probably comes down to semantics, when those arguing are web standards savvy people. Granted, most web accessibility advocates that make their voices heard on the web have very good knowledge of web standards. But people who build accessible websites because they have instead of because it’s what they believe is right are often not at all interested in web standards.

    That’s when a website can become accessible to people using Windows-based assistive devices that rely on Internet Explorer, and at the same time not work at all or be very difficult to use in other browsers on other platforms.

    I’m not worried that you or Joe or any other well-known accessibility advocate will build or advocate building websites that are not interoperable. I’m worried about less scrupulous developers seeing a statement like that and interpret it the wrong way.

  21. August 26, 2005 by Martin Smales

    Hi Gez,

    Let me point it out to you that accessibility and web accessibility can be treated as two different things.

    “Web accessibility” probably infer that people are already able to use the web but in some way cannot (i.e. people who have sight, hearing, mobility problems, etc. that in some way limited their accessibility to use the web).

    “Accessibility”, to the web, probably infer that people like those in third-world countries do not have sufficient infrastructure to access the web. Perhaps, WAI did not take into account this kind of accessibility but for those who “already” use the web.

    Drawing the lines between accessibility as a general term, web accessibility, availability, usability and web standards is a start. They all somehow blur each other in some way so it is hard to explain one term without acknowledging the other associated terms.

  22. I think it should be reasonably apparent that I am a proponent of Web standards and accessibility, the former of which is a predictor of the latter. I don’t know how many times I have to state, in these discussions, that I’m all for universality, interoperability, and availability, but it’s not something I want to work on. Except of course for the fact that I am a leading standardista, and actually coined that term.

    I don’t see what the problem is. I’m already an expert in and advocate of enough obscure fields. Please don’t make it sound like I have to spend hours of my life doing task X because you defined it a different way. I do what I can, and what I do does not hinder anybody’s efforts to promote interoperability. I think it’s pretty clear that I am doing that same kind of promotion along the way.

  23. I’ve never, and would never, advocate that anyone builds a website that isn’t interoperable. Interoperability is an essential aspect for the web. I’m merely stating that I believe web accesibility is purely about ensuring websites are usable for people with disabilities. That is the accepted meaning of web accssibility, and the focus of all web accessibility practices. That statement doesn’t imply that I don’t believe in any other best practices, or that I’m having difficulty understanding the terms used in this article and the comments.

  24. August 26, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Joe: Thanks for removing any doubts that anybody might have had. I and - I believe - most others reading this were already confident about that. Sorry if I made it look otherwise by quoting you here.

    Gez: I know you wouldn’t :-).

    It all comes down to semantics then. I’d like a term that includes both accessibility for people with disabilities and interoperability.

  25. Roger wrote: “I’d like a term that includes both accessibility for people with disabilities and interoperability.”

    Both Tim Berners Lee and Joe Clark have used the term “universality”.

    Digging through the roots of the Web Accessibility Initiative shows that universality is the aim of the web as a whole - something you are keen on promoting. WAI was created because it was becoming evident that people with disabilities were being left behind. WAI’s mission is to correct that deficiency.

  26. If you live in the EU and/or work for the public sector in one of the member states the definition is dead easy: it’s about providing access to IT in the usual way with no additional help for people with disabilities. Period. The fact that accessible web content can also be reached with other alternative devices is a nice side effect, but not the intention.

    Quote from the somewhat official translation of Germanys’ BITV (WCAG-ripoff): “The intention of the design of IT and internet facilities (section 1) in accordance with this ordinance shall be to enable disabled persons within the meaning of section 3 of the Act on Equal Opportunities for Disabled Persons, who can only use information technology to a limited extent unless additional conditions are fulfilled, to access it.”

    It doesn’t say anything about Blackberrys and Treos or how to ensure that Joe Doe can use your site when electricity is down.

    Since most laws and regulations within EU are based on a single directive from Brussels, they should be similar all over the continent.

  27. I am told by Tomas “Not the Friendly Ghost” Caspers that the term standardista dates back to 1998.

    Can I at least say I coined accessibilitista and usabilitista? I’ve got a reputation as a neologician to keep up, after all.

  28. August 27, 2005 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Joe: Haha, sure you can. But accessibilitista is a real tongue-twister ;-)

  29. Every designer should take a few weeks and volenteer at a local center for adults (able and disabled) and try and teach the people how to use the internet. It is such an eye opener its not all about vision and zoom layouts (which are and will be great). People with disabilities tend not to have a whole lot of cash and feel empowered when they can get their hands on a 300mhz windows 2000 machine running explorer 5.x. Even if firefox would run, the internet is the big blue E in on the left of the 640x480 screen with big fonts. Accessiblity is not only about vision, poor dexterity is an massive hurdle for a computer user who would much prefer a larger clickable area around a 12px text link which they can read fine, to a big text page they have to keep scrolling. The discussion is great and will be ongoing but the results are many years away for the people being discussed.

    websites for people who need them and they suck

    Web standards people

  30. Accessibility means access for everyone, like Jaap said. Accessibility doesn’t encouraging discrimination. It is true that it can be used for discrimination, but all the time there will be various opinions about that.

  31. ac·ces·si·ble adjective


    1. easily reached: easy to enter or reach physically

    2. easily understood: able to be appreciated or understood without specialist knowledge

    3. easily available: able to be obtained, used, or experienced without difficulty

    4. approachable: not aloof and not difficult to talk to or meet with

    5. susceptible: susceptible to or likely to be influenced by something

    6. easy for physically challenged people to use: suitable or adapted for people with physical challenges

  32. Accessibility means access for everyone. Also for people who doesn’t have money to buy a pc.

  33. I don’t think accessibility is connected with money, like Paul99 said. We all have friends, or a internet place where we can go to find something.

  34. September 13, 2005 by Martin Kliehm

    Accessibility is design for all. For example the European Commission’s program for accessibility (or eAccessibility, as they call it) uses the term “design for all”.

    Accessibility is not only for the disabled, but also for the generation 50+, for people with common visual impairments like color-blindness (a slightly larger percentage than another minority – Mac users – still they are often forgotten), or for creating cultural accessible websites.

    In my hometown about 30% of the population doesn’t have a German passport. So it seems only logical to consider this in websites like for public transport, where at least the main functions like the query should be available in the most common languages.

    But certainly the largest target group is the growing number of elderly people using the Web. All of us will belong to that group sooner or later, so making websites accessible is “designing for our future selves”, as a British research program put it.

    Besides it enforces best practices, web standards, slim and fast loading code, less traffic, high quality websites which run on any browser, faster redesigns through CSS, semantic content, higher ranking search results, device independant design, readability with emerging technologies like text-to-speech software (for websites, implemented by car manufacturers like BMW, or even for podcasting!) etc., so truly all of us profit from it.

    Personally I prefer the term “design for all”, because “accessibility” sounds like a disease, is often misunderstood as for-people-with-disabilities-only (client: “that’s not our target group, I don’t want to spend money on it”) and has a negative connotation even when I talk to collegues. “Design for all” is more open, and more accurate.

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