The Angst of Accessibility

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There are many things in the world of web-development that are contentious, controversial, or provoke a passionate response. Some people’s feathers are easily ruffled by talk of legacy IE support, some by whether vendor extensions to CSS are a good idea; for some, you only have to mention HTML5 to get a tirade of exasperated complaints!

But no subject quite provokes the same response as accessibility.

I’ve seen developers get all kinds of worked-up over the how, whats and wherefores of a hundred-and-one different subjects, but it’s only in response to accessibility that I’ve seen anger at the mere suggestion.

So to follow-up my earlier post, The Art of Accessibility, I’d like to consider for a time — just what is it about accessibility that gets some people so inflamed? Why should an issue so clearly rooted in improving the user experience, provoke any objection at all, let alone such a strong one?

Let’s examine a few possibilities.

We all have a job to do

I can’t deny that I’m something of a workaholic, and I have the time to be — I can devote extra time to learning new skills, and practising those I already have, with personal projects and test-cases. But our industry is filled with people who don’t have that kind of freedom, who are far too constrained by time and resources to spend any time at all on things that don’t directly benefit their primary user-base.

It’s my view that providing for good accessibility is a fundamental part of our professionalism. It’s an important part of our job, and if you can’t or won’t give it the attention it requires, then you don’t deserve to call yourself a professional developer. But how do you say that to someone with a family and children to support? Is it any wonder that people would feel affronted by an attitude like mine, when they’re just trying to have a job and provide for their dependents?

Especially when the results may seem purely serendipitous! The main result of good accessibility is a better user experience for people with disabilities, who browse using access technologies, or have specific interactive or cognitive limitations. But are there any such people visiting your site? Probably yes, but honestly, you don’t really know. So why should you spend time and effort catering to a group of users who might not even exist?

I do have an answer to that, and we’ll come back to that later. For now, we can take it as read that the afformentioned issues are a source of chagrin to many jobbing developers, and ultimately, can provoke an angry response.

But such responses don’t come only from this group, they come from all kinds of developers in all kinds of circumstances. So this can’t be the whole story.

Anger breeds anger

There’s no doubt that, in some cases, angry responses are caused by angry proposals. Those developers who’ve invested the most in accessibility, and who are most vociferous in its support, tend to get frustrated at others’ lack of interest. Once you’ve decided for yourself that something is important, it’s understandable to feel frustration at those who don’t share your view.

So we can see how strong proponents of accessibility would get angry at developers who aren’t prepared to consider it at all; I know I have. But that doesn’t really excuse it, because anger breeds anger, and if you get too worked-up about a subject you’ll inevitably provoke a similar response in others. People will get angry at you, because you got angry at them.

Yet even when the proposal is free of all such baiting, angry responses still come; there was nothing at all antagonistic or patronising about my previous post on this subject, but it still provoked those kinds of responses. Clearly, this is not the whole story either.

No, I think the real answer cuts much, much deeper — right to the very heart of what we think of as fair.

What does fair mean?

Politicians are notorious for throwing-around words that sound good, without giving any clear sense of what they actually mean — of what exactly is fair and unfair? In fact they mean different things at different times, because there are two kinds of fairness.

The first kind of fairness is treating people equally. A lottery is an example of this kind of fairness — everyone who enters has the same chance of winning.

The second kind of fairness is treating people unequally to acheive an equal result. The income tax of most countries is an example of this second kind of fairness — as your income increases, you pay not just a larger amount of tax, but a larger proportion of your income as tax.

Catering for accessibility means spending extra time and effort on the needs of a minority, and doing so because that minority is disproportionately disadvantaged to begin with. Even though accessibility is not especially time-consuming, it does nevertheless take more time than the proportion of people who benefit would otherwise justify.

So accessibility is an example of the second kind of fairness — treating people unequally to acheive an equal result — which in other situations would be called positive discrimination.

How positive is positive discrimination?

In my view, the most significant reason why some people object to catering for accessibility, is that it amounts to discrimination, and they don’t think that’s fair.

In broad terms, I don’t approve of positive discrimination, because I don’t think the ends are generally justified by the means. I think there are many inequalities in our society which begin as well-meaning attempts to counter an imbalance, and end by creating a counter-imbalance that’s just as unfair.

But the web in particular, and IT in general, is a special case — because technology is the best hope for accessibility.

It’s not like the physical world, where there are good, tangible reasons why some things can never be accessible. A person who’s blind will never be able to drive a car manually; someone in a wheelchair will never be able to climb the steps of an ancient stone cathedral. But technology is not like the physical world — technology can take any shape; technology is our slave, and we can make it do what we want.

For anyone who’s isolated — such as by disability, geography, mental or physical illness, or the need to care for others — the internet is a life-line. It’s our job and our responsibility keep that life-line strong, because without it, some people would have no contact with the world at all.

That’s why accessibility matters, and why — in my view — it is necessary and justified to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort in making in better. But I also understand why this is so difficult or impractical for many developers.

I think the best thing that accessibility advocates can do is to step-down from their soap-box, stop preaching so puritanically, and accept that many developers simply can’t meet their expectations. And the best thing that jobbing developers can do is just to try and be aware of the issues, and focus on the quick and simple things we can all do to improve accessibility — write meaningful alt text for images; use headings logically and with an eye to the overall structure they create; don’t use JavaScript to generate primary content.

But most of all, what everyone can do, is avoid responding to bad-attitude with more bad-attitude — it just increases the overall amount of bad-attitude in the air, and that’s not good for anyone.

James EdwardsJames Edwards
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James is a freelance web developer based in the UK, specialising in JavaScript application development and building accessible websites. With more than a decade's professional experience, he is a published author, a frequent blogger and speaker, and an outspoken advocate of standards-based development.

accessibilityfairnesspositive discriminationprofessionalism
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