Helping others understand web accessibility

When I hold workshops for people who want to learn more about web standards and accessibility, I often notice that the attendants really have tried to improve their accessibility knowledge. But they get overwhelmed when they go to the official documentation from the W3C and try to understand it.

Mike Cherim brings this up in Making Web Accessibility Accessible, an article that is over a year old but still just as relevant. He notes that accessibility is harder to get into than it should be for several reasons, one of which being that the documentation (WCAG 1.0) is hard to understand. And it doesn’t look like things will get much easier when WCAG 2.0 is released and becomes the norm.

In addition to the documentation problem, Mike also mentions the unhelpful attitude held by some people who seem like they don’t want to help the less experienced, the misguided or the misinformed, and instead choose to criticise them. I see it too sometimes, and I have probably been guilty of doing that myself. But I really try to help where I can by sharing what I’ve learned about web accessibility so far. And I’m still learning, so I really appreciate when other people share their knowledge.

Over the years I’ve spent countless hours writing articles, responding to email and comments, and participating on discussion forums. No matter how much I would like to, there is no time for me to do more unless I quit my dayjob. And since my dayjob is how I pay the mortgage, well, that’s not very likely. Writing articles takes lots of time, for me anyway.

Going back to Mike’s article, he suggests a few things to think about when you talk about accessibility with other people who work in the fields of web design and development:

  • Be a translator: Learn the specs and translate them into English.
  • Be willing to give back: If somebody asks for your help, try to find time to respond.
  • Accessibility is happy: Give accessibility a smiling face.
  • Encourage don’t admonish: When somebody makes progress, acknowledge that instead of criticising what they do wrong.

Good suggestions, Mike. I will try to get better at each of them. For instance, I guess I could be a little less grumpy sometimes when I come across bad examples or implementations. But not always… ;-).

Posted on February 5, 2008 in Accessibility


  1. The language barrier is also another issue. Reading those heavily technical documents is not the easiest thing for a non english person. In other words, trying to interpret the specs into plain english and then translating them into swedish means that a lot of info is lost in the process…

    Nice reading as usual btw.

  2. Even though I’m the one tasked with, in the words of a client, “making the website accessible and all that”, getting the message through to content managers is a very difficult process.

    Many content managers within institutions have difficulty even understanding the importance of the hyperlink to web content, let alone the importance of correctly labeling and titling them.

  3. February 6, 2008 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Andy: Agreed, the language barrier is definitely an issue. It’s very easy to forget that most of the world’s web developers do not have English as their native language.

    Andy Leppard: Getting the message through to content managers is a problem I’m facing every day. No matter how technically accessible a site is it doesn’t help much if the content is hard to understand.

  4. I think part of the issue is how the specs are written: they often assume a background in accessibility, meaning that anyone who is trying to implement from the specs (even if reading specs is normal for someone doing so) can be very hard.

    In addition, I don’t think the specs give enough rational for some issues — why should I be doing such a thing? Why should I be restricted to this subset? I think the “Understanding WCAG 2.0” has made large strides in this area, but I think it could go further still.

  5. February 6, 2008 by Albo P. Fossa

    It’s often hard to explain to a client the importance of making a website available to unsighted visitors.

    (“Why would they need to visit my website? Why should I care? Do I need their business?”)

    Then I FOUND some plain English: two “unsighted” examples are (1) the search engine robot and (2) the mobile phone user, in a car, having the website “read” to her/him via screen reader!

    (I’ve also gotten “greedy” for the good vibes I get from grateful students. Feels warm. Greed helps.)

  6. I think it often depends on the intensions of the one implementing the front-end.

    Web accessibility shares common elements with third-world support. For most of us, we’re helping people we often never come into contact with. I’m sure there are plenty of people that are helped when a site is well-implemented, but not meeting those people and not experiencing the problems yourself makes it a lot harder to put in the extra trouble.

    Being a purist helps a lot. If you’re talking to a person who can’t really grasp the idea of making something that’s better or more complete without experiencing the actual benefits himself, I think it’s hard to sell accessibility to him.

    While the article is helpful and no doubt well intented, I doubt the actual use and effect of the propositions.

  7. Thanks Roger. For the record I think you’re a fabulous web accessibility teacher, taking the necessary time and showing dedication, and effectively bringing the hot issues to the forefront in a plain-speak that anyone can grasp.

    @Albo: I find the robots argument especially effective. Getting people to care about others can be futile, whereas getting them to care about their site’s index-ability is always an easy sell. I’d like it if they cared, or at least feel a certain responsibility, but whatever works. The end-result is still a web site that’s more accessible than it would normally be.

  8. Well, I think aside from the language, the document is just too long (and add to that that it’s too technical), someone who would like to inspect the spec would be too intimidated by it..

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