Barrier-free Web design, a.k.a. Web accessibility 2.0

This article is co-authored with Tommy Olsson.

Recently, the old debate about the definition of "Web accessibility" has flared up again, despite attempts to make peace. There are two camps in this debate: Camp 1 saying that "accessibility" means "possible to access" and Camp 2 saying that it means "possible to access for people with disabilities".

The debate has been heated at times, with ad hominem attacks and proliferation of FUD from both sides. This internecine strife is potentially a greater threat to Web accessibility than ignorant and reluctant clients and Web professionals.

Both authors of this article belong firmly in Camp 1. We believe in building websites with no unnecessary barriers, thereby making the Web accessible to as many people as possible. In this article we attempt to explain why we believe that is important and why we do not think including everybody risks excluding people with disabilities.

Accessibility, universality, or both?

One fundamental premise for Camp 2 advocates is that accessibility deals with circumstances over which a person has no choice. That is usually translated as having a disability which affects a person's ability to use the Web. There are, however, other situations where people have no real choice. As an example, many people live in rural areas where it is impossible to get a fast broadband connection. Arguing that they do have a choice (moving to a city) is beyond ridiculous.

For both camps, people with disabilities are a very important group of users. In the brick and mortar world, a physical disability can make it difficult or impossible to fully enjoy public or commercial services. There is no reason whatsoever to put up the same barriers in the online world. The only real difference between the two camps is that Camp 1 advocates want to take this principle one step further and remove all unnecessary barriers.

We do not comprehend the rationale of making a website that is only accessible to people with disabilities as long as they use a particular operating system and browser, with ActiveX, JavaScript and Flash enabled, and have an 8 Mbit/s connection to the Internet. We feel that a much better strategy is to build the site so that the content is accessible to everybody. Unobtrusive enhancements can then be added to increase aesthetics and usability.

This concept, often referred to as progressive enhancement, means starting with the actual content, which normally consists of text and sometimes images. Once that is in place you add styling to make the content aesthetically attractive to those who can perceive the design. After that you add usability enhancements with JavaScript, Flash or whichever technology suits the purpose. The important thing is to add these enhancements without becoming dependent on them.

It is occasionally argued that "universality" (Camp 2's term for what we mean by "accessibility") means you cannot use JavaScript, Flash, or anything but text marked up with HTML. That is completely wrong, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what Camp 1 means by accessibility.

People come first

No matter which camp one chooses to adhere to, the single most important thing is people: the human beings that visit our websites. Accessibility (or "universality") is not about browsers or assistive technologies; it is about the people who use those browsers or that technology.

Making a website accessible to people who are blind, for instance, is to a large degree a question of making it work with screen readers and keyboards, because that is what most blind users use to interface with their computers. That doesn't make the screen reader more important than the person using it, but it does make it something we have to consider when attempting to make our sites accessible to the people who use that screen reader.

Camp 2 advocates often say that confusing "universality" with accessibility (for people with disabilities) causes the concept of Web accessibility to somehow become diluted. That is a valid and relevant statement, but we do not share those concerns.

Selling accessibility

We, as accessibility proponents and Web developers, have to somehow "sell" the concept of accessibility to our clients and employers. That can be relatively easy for government sites, where legislation often prohibits discrimination, but it is often a real challenge for commercial sites. What is the ROI of accessibility? How does it affect our bottom line? How will it help our next quarterly report?

In cases like these, pleading on behalf of an anonymous group of "people with disabilities" can be like talking to a brick wall. It's not that the clients are callous or cruel; they simply balance the perceived cost of accessibility against the expected increase in revenue. If the scales tip the wrong way, they're willing to write off the "disabled" group as an acceptable loss. Money talks.

The end result is what matters

If we eschew the narrow definition of accessibility that some members of Camp 2 so vociferously stand for, we have a better chance of convincing the sceptics about the benefits of an accessible site. Losing 15% of the visitors because they use Firefox has a larger financial impact than losing 1% because they are blind. Reductions in server load and bandwidth usage can be translated directly into monetary numbers in an Excel sheet and show the gain. SEO benefits are instantly understood. And if this is what it takes to convince the client; if this is what it takes to make them "let" us build an accessible site, does it really matter all that much?

The result is a site that is accessible to as many people as possible, including people with disabilities. How can that be a bad thing?

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Posted on October 24, 2006 in Accessibility