Accessibility for all vs. for people with disabilities

One debate that comes up over and over again, just like the HTML vs. XHTML debate, is the “accessibility is for everyone” vs. “accessibility is for people with disabilities” debate. I have taken part in one or two such debates myself, but it always feels a bit strange to argue against people who are essentially fighting for the same thing I am – trying to make the Web easier to access and use for everybody.

Gez Lemon and Mike Cherim are in different camps in this debate and have co-written an article for Accessitess.org in an attempt to end the pointless fighting. In the article, titled The Great Accessibility Camp-Out (comments can be posted on Mike’s blog in Re: The Great Accessibility Camp-Out), Gez and Mike explain how most people in their respective camps view Web accessibility. The idea is not to try to change anyone’s mind, but to make each camp understand and respect the other camp’s opinion.

It’s a good initiative as this occasional arguing (which can get quite heated) only drains energy and scares off talented and dedicated people. And it honestly turns me off as well.

As for which camp I am in, I think most regular readers will correctly put me in the “accessibility is for everyone” camp (Camp 1 in the article). Fighting for a Web where people can access information without being forced to use a mouse to operate Internet Explorer on a desktop PC running a Windows operating system with broadband Internet access is what got me interested in accessibility to begin with.

I do recognise that the W3C’s definition of Web accessibility is “to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities”. So yes, you could say that I and anybody else who try their hardest to make the Web usable for all should not be allowed to use the phrase “Web accessibility”.

However, strictly following the W3C’s definition of what Web accessibility is would make it harder for me to make people (clients, other Web developers and designers) understand how accessibility benefits everyone.

Every now and then I hold workshops on Web standards and accessibility for Web developers, and as soon as I mention the word “disability”, people tend to start inspecting their finger nails very carefully or look uncomfortable. I find that talking about accessibility for everyone, disabled or not, makes people relax a little and start listening.

I also fail to see how advocating that websites are built to be accessible for all people could possibly hurt anyone. To me “everybody” includes people with disabilities.

In the end, the result is the same. So let’s stop this pointless arguing and help each other make the Web a better place.

Posted on October 4, 2006 in Accessibility, Quicklinks

Comments

    • throws fist in the air *

    Yeah! Quit arguing!

    Oh, and I am in Camp 1 as well. I have tried explaining accessiblity to others (developers), and they instantly shrug when you say ‘a blind person can’t do…’ - basically because they don’t care. However, if you phrase it for a wider audience (everyone), then they listen. I even throw in that their biggest blind user is a search bot - which also seems to grab their attention.

    And, as you, I would add those with disabilities into the list of ‘everyone’.

    So yeah, quit arguing! geez….

  1. Very good point, Roger. I liked the “Fighting for a Web where people can access information without being forced to use a mouse to operate Internet Explorer on a desktop PC running a Windows operating system with broadband Internet access is what got me interested in accessibility to begin with.” part.

    We had a quite “hot” discussion not so long ago where one guy was arguing that accesibility was something so diffuse that nobody really knew what to do with it. Like, clients coming to studios saying they need a website and it needs to be accessible, but maybe they “don’t really need it but ask for it because it’s a trend” (he said).

    It is very hard to explain sometimes… I wish everybody read your articles, they go so to the point!! :)

  2. October 4, 2006 by Tobias

    “I also fail to see how advocating that websites are built to be accessible for all people could possibly hurt anyone. To me “everybody” includes people with disabilities.”

    That’s the point.

  3. Ultimately it’s just semantics.

    • Universality: The notion of “anyone, anywhere, any device”. I think this is what people usually mean by accessibility.
    • Interoperability: Processable by any software which is has general standards-compliance, including ones which aren’t perfect. Doesn’t just mean browsers: also includes search engines, Content Management Systems, etc.
    • Device independance: Renders sensibly on any device (PC monitor, TV screen, mobile phone, PDA, tactile interface, speech output, etc) and on any platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc) when using generally standards-compliant software.
    • Accessibility: Has good usability for disabled people.
    • Best practise: Attempting all the above!

    That’s my take on it. Definitely saves some time and confusion in normal conversations just calling it all accessibility or best practise. The latter is probably more familiar to programmers since executable languages tend to have well established best practises already.

    Related reading: W3C in 7 Points.

  4. Hi Roger,

    we’re very much in the camp, accessibility is for everyone. Our main reasoning is that there is so much crossover between usability and accessibility. We’re very much advocates of usable accessibility - beyond the WAI guidelines.

    Rather than viewing users in a polar fashion as either abled or disabled it’s important to note that “disability” is a spectrum.

    As as example, if I break my arm tomorrow, I’ll be mobility impaired for a couple of weeks and may not be able to use a mouse. In twenty years (or a lot less if I keep reading blogs well into the night) I’ll be more visually impaired than I am now.

    Lar

  5. Hello Roger,

    Thanks for helping spread the word. As long as people stay mired in the terminology and semantics of it, they’ll not move forward in practice.

    And what you say in relation to talking to people about it is right on. It’d be similar if we chose not to build websites for people until they used and understood proper web developer jargon. If we insisted on that we’d spend more time correcting them than doing for them. Universality is probably the more correct term as Gez said in the article and Ben noted above, but the concept of accessibility is grasped much easier by the typical user I think.

    Tommy Olsson made a poll at SitePoint asking members there what they thought its meaning was and it certainly shows the majority understand it as I defined in Camp 1.

    Mike

  6. I don’t know if you’ve seen Isofarro’s twopennorth, but he’s certainly a camp 2-er.

    Being a camp 1-er myself, I’ve written yet another post about the definition of accessibility, and why we should just all get along and be nice to each other, if anyone still has the will to live/read it.

  7. Here are a couple of realistic, non-disabled user situations which benefit from accessible sites:

    I use the text browser to quickly check weather before leaving home. This cuts the time needed to load load a GUI and Firefox. Yes, I do this plenty of time. No my TV is not plugged in.

    Also, I have a lot of client files on my computer and want to be safe, so I browse with javascript off by default. Yes I can run vmware, but help me out here. You want me to be comfortable and stress free when I buy that useless gadget on your e-commerce site.

    There is more than one way for non-disabled people to browse the Internet. Too bad some people don’t realise that (weather.com, I’m looking at you).

  8. It’s “Web for Everyone” though what I find strange is the many of people still seem to think most people with disabilities require Assistive Devices.

  9. We should provide access for everyone, so it doesn’t really matter which accessibility-camp we’re in.

    One thing though: as there are literally hundreds of different mainstream UAs and Assistive Technology - each (combination) with its own set of quirks and options, we can not perfect everything for everyone from our end. The UA-makers and end-users will have to solve some of the problems at their end.

  10. Roger: “it always feels a bit strange to argue against people who are essentially fighting for the same thing I am”

    You are not fighting for what I’m working for - you are actively compromising it, for example:

    Roger: “However, strictly following the W3C’s definition of what Web accessibility is would make it harder for me to make people (clients, other Web developers and designers) understand how accessibility benefits everyone.”

    Now I’m a lot more concerned than I was earlier today. Do you realise how dangerous this course of action is, particularly for regularly read blog (regardless of how well intentioned you feel about it)?

    Roger: “I also fail to see how advocating that websites are built to be accessible for all people could possibly hurt anyone.”

    The solutions you need to solve your self-created ideals impose an arbitrary limit on what can be done for people with disabilities. Effectively you are ruling out solutions that makes content accessible to people with disabilities but don’t meet your universality or interoperability desires - and then getting web accessibility to foot the blame for that limitation. Its unacceptable, and it has to stop.

    Disabled people are being deprived of a better, more accessible online experience because of the limitations you impose as a result of persuing something that is not about web accessibility.

  11. There was a time when adding proper access keys was part of good GUI design. I don’t see what the fuss is about. People just need to do their job properly. That being said I absolutely loathe fancy pre-configured disabled accessability key-combos, like holding down the shift key. I have lost count of the number of times when I have rebooted the PC to get out of permanent uppercase hell.

  12. For what it’s worth, I think this is a debate worth having. I have a different perspective than most, but I want to try and clarify one thing first so that I’m not misinterpreting.

    Mike - you said:

    Effectively you are ruling out solutions that makes content accessible to people with disabilities but don’t meet your universality or interoperability desires

    Can you clarify this a bit more? Are you saying that your concern is where we choose interoperability/universality over something that may be more accessible to people with disabilities, if we aren’t using people with disabilities as our motivation for building accessible sites? That’s how I’m interpreting it, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth :) If so, do you have a scenario in mind that might illustrate what you mean?

    That’s not a loaded question either - I’m truly interested in your perspective here - as you know, I believe that what we do is about people with disabilities first and that interoperability/universality is a nice and convenient side effect that just happens to be a benefit. I pursue interoperability and universality because I believe it is a worthy goal too.

    So, given the choice of two (hypothetical) implementations - one that is more accessible and one that is more universal/interoperable, are you saying that your concern is that people will simply choose the more universal/interoperable?

    Again - not trying to derail anything here, just making sure that I understand where you’re coming from and maybe where you’re going with this. I’m curious to read your response, to say the least…

  13. I’m with camp 1. Device independence is a major point in accessibility. It doesn’t matter if I have a small screen resolution because I’m a zoom reader or because I use a gadget with actually a tiny screen.

    Like Roger said, the thought of disabilities make people uncomfortable, and they don’t care because they argue “it’s not our target group”. That’s why you have to find other arguments to sell accessibility. “Design for All” is a strong one. It includes among others young dyslexic people, old people with low vision, color blind people, and device independence. People your clients see within their target group, and stuff that’s cool. Even the EU-sponsored eAccessibility network has “Design for All” in the name. It sells better, plus it doesn’t sound like disease.

    Design for All doesn’t change the focus. The requirements, the WAI guidelines as a base for quality management are exactly the same. Only the label is different. So where’s the problem?

  14. I tried purchasing groceries from www.tesco.ie with Konqueror from an Ubuntu Linux distribution, and while tesco are up there with the top implementers of an Accessible Internet, I was halted at the Confirm stage of the purchase with an obscure error message – from which I received no real support from Tesco on. This in turn created a desire to become interested in web development and try to improve the web.

    After a long hard think about it - I’m going to say “vendor independance” and not just device independance is what will improve the web and its content.

  15. If you Google “Accessibility for All” it’s interesting how many references that come up. I was curious so I did just that and was surprised.

    Mike

  16. ..Accessible what, where, and how?

    Please enlighten me Roger.

    How can this be done, platform, country independent accessible websites? I agree, i have such dreams also, i wish this was possible overnight, but it just isn’t.

    The focus is narrow, that of impared people. But what about cultural differences? take a look at german, japanese, and swis websites, they all have there own way of being on the web, how to solve that? it cannot be done.

    IMHO: I bless your struggle, but i think that this struggle is in vain.. really.

  17. Hi, well done. I think, basically accessibility is for all, but taking a special look at people with disabilities helps much when nailing it down to find concrete solutions. So the difference is simply a different point of view. Considering people with disabilities is the “how to make it” point of view, considering all is the “why to make it” point of view.

  18. Jungsonn: It’s not about being perfect, it’s about getting as close to perfection as possible. Let’s not be pessimistic here… ideals are key to success.

  19. Accessibility is about the greatest audience potential and whether that includes those of us with challenges is all to the good. Accessibility will shortly be par fot the website developemnt cause, since we shall all recognise the need for standards-compliant development.

    This strikes me as a challenging arena where disparate knowledge encourages across the river encampments. How frustrating.

    I repeat: accessibility is within the skillset of the developer and encourages best practice to deliver our websites and message to the greatest audience possible: the Web.

    I can’t be bothered with irresolute dicsussions on the complexities of accessible development. It’s not exclusively about peaople with disabilities / impairments / challenges, it’s about the global audience, many of whom are on dial-up, in school rooms in the middle of an islaoted state in a 3rd world country without appropriate resources or recourse to a plan of action we comfortably accommodate in our living rooms.

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