The True Meaning of Accessibility

When people are starting up a new site development project, questions usually come up around the "Accessibility" requirements of what's being built. Does this site need to be accessible to screen readers? Does it need to conform to federal standards of accessibility? What kind of audience will be visiting this site? And so on. All good questions, and questions worth asking.

But I think these questions are too often asked not with the intention of providing conveniences specific to certain audiences, but instead to find grounds on which to ignore the concept of "Accessibility" as a whole, an excuse to knock it off as one less thing to worry about: "No blind users coming here? No need for accessibility then". Yikes. This points to some confusion about what it really means to produce accessible content, and I'd like to try and clear up a bit of that by taking a closer look at what it really means to be "accessible".

Right, so let's start with the word "Accessibility". The term has been fashionable for years now, but it grew to be a little ambiguous as the idea became more popular and more people starting tossing it around. All in all I think it's still centered around the right idea, but there are at least two sides to that coin (the um coin of accessibility?) and I think we might stand to benefit from a quick look at what those are.

We can all agree that one of the great things about the web is the way that published material can be accessed from pretty much anywhere with a connection, and using a huge variety of software tools. Properly coded content can be syndicated, redistributed, rewrapped, re-styled and reborn with little or no effort, due to the clever design of the technology involved. Now this is nothing new - we've all heard it a million times by now - but we've also learned from experience that it's not quite so simple, either. Things do go wrong - and given the complexity of it all, there are a number of ways they go about doing it.

Take me, for example. As a user, I'm pretty mainstream. I run Firefox or IE on Windows with a big, full-colour screen and good multimedia support. I don't exactly fall into the category most people think of when they're worrying about "Accessibility" but nonetheless accessibility problems still arise. Server is down? Then I can't access the site. Connection dies between client and server? No access. Google can't see the site? I can't find it. Flaky browser chokes on a piece of code? No access. What I'm getting at here is that, strictly speaking, the word "Accessibility" refers to "the ability to access the material being presented".

But as the industry matured, people began to give serious thought to what they called "universal accessibility", in an attempt to understand the difficulties faced by those of us working with physical limitations. Not only should mainstream audiences be able to access the site, the thinking goes, but so should those using screen readers, braille devices and voice-activated software, too. Enter initiatives like the Canadian Government's Common Look and Feel standards, and Section 508 in the United States. All noble goals, and all worthy of attention, which they received.

However, the development trends at the time were such that the main challenge for "universal accessibility" was not in finding ways to make things easier for the so-called "disabled" crowd, but in finding ways to allow them just to get in the front door. Unnecessarily heavy reliance on images, scripts and non-standard widgets to deliver core content resulted in the majority of websites being almost entirely inaccessible to people using assistive technologies. It was in this atmosphere that the term "Accessibility" took hold and really started to go somewhere.

Support for the idea grew, which at first seemed to be motivated by ideas of equality and non-discrimination - the worthwhile pursuit of being as inclusive as possible. But as time went on and people began to understand web standards and move back towards using these technologies the way they were intended, it became clear that universal accessibility is already inherent in the design of the medium if you publish a plain HTML page, everybody will be able to access it simply because it's in HTML.

Where the problems kick in is when people pave over their plain HTML content in a way that accidentally locks out certain segments of the population. And that's sort of the sad part of the story here the way we were building sites those days, we were actually starting off with an accessible solution and then inadvertently erecting these barriers as we put more effort into construction. Then, failing to understand where we had gone wrong, we took what we had and tried to address these barriers by putting even more effort in - on top of the slightly misguided construction done so far - to try and make our inaccessible product at least "degrade gracefully". Like spending cash on building a wheelchair ramp to get people over a high curb that arguably shouldn't have been put there in the first place.

Now - without a doubt - a site that "degrades gracefully" is better than one that is totally inaccessible, but in truth there is no need for anything to degrade at all. Instead it is better to remember that the pure content we're putting online is the product and is already accessible to all sorts of different people - and that the visual designs and snazzy scripted widgets are upgrades to the basic offering. Done properly, nobody gets a degraded version at all - instead it's just a question of how many of the upgrades the user takes advantage of during their visit.

So back to the two sides of accessibility, that stupid coin I was talking about. The old-school approach sees accessibility as "the ability of disabled or "alternative" users to access your content". People coming from this perspective understand the challenge to be about the elimination of accessibility barriers that would lock these users out.

The other take on accessible design is based on a more modern approach in which universal accessibility is achieved by keeping core content clean, to allow everybody and every machine access to your content and then applying layers of enhancements for those who can make use of them. The big difference between this approach and the other is that the old way is about removing barriers to entry - and the other is about ways to make things even easier for alternative users to make their way through the already barrier-free content. And from here it becomes clear: any effort taken which confounds, obscures or otherwise mangles your core content is not only creating potential barriers for alternative users, but also may be locking out other segments of your audience based merely on their choice of browser, operating system, bandwidth or display setup.

Clearly, the modern approach has won out, not only due to dreams of equal-access-for-all, but also largely driven by the fact that the most modern and powerful technologies are not steered by human eyes but are instead software entities operating in much the same way as screen-readers do: by reading the HTML. People began to realize that if the screen-reader couldn't read their website, then neither could Google. That got people's attention pretty quickly.

So I guess what I'm saying is that we should try not to talk about accessibility as if it were just an option to be applied as an afterthought, or as some kind of favour for blind people. If your server is down, if your fonts are too small, if your site is too heavy to be downloaded easily, if your content is hidden behind proprietary plugins or buried away in scripts somewhere, these are all accessibility problems. This is about so much more than just catering to some "disabled" demographic it's about making sure people can get what they came for:


Okay then. So if we can agree that the old notion of the "accessibility problem" is best left to the modern, standards-based design tactics, then what is there to talk about when it comes to making things easier for people with actual disabilities?

Well, as I said, most of the old "Accessibility" tricks were less about providing conveniences for disabled users and more about dealing with the problems that kept them out entirely. Now that we don't have to put effort into providing workarounds for those barriers any more, what better way to spend that time than to work on implementing bonus features that make their visit a little easier? Having now removed the barriers to entry, we're in a better position to think a little bit about things we can do to help out this is where "skip navigation" links come in. Or special stylesheets that help screenreading software do a better job of reading your site. Or setting up a more useful tab-order in your site's links, or establishing keyboard shortcuts, or you get the idea. Lots to talk about there, but that's a whole other conversation. For now, just remember: Accessibility = Interoperability.

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