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 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