Happy birthday, world wide web!

Today, CERN will celebrate the 20th birthday of the world wide web.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Tim Berners-Lee for writing the initial proposal and sticking to the idea even though his boss, Mike Sendall forgot about it after calling it “vague, but exciting…”.

For me, the web has opened a ton of possibilities that I would have otherwise required sighted assistance with, or which would not be possible for me to do at all, such as casually browsing the New York Times or the Hamburger Abendblatt. I would not be able to look for specific items on, or simply browse the offerings of Amazon. I would not be able to sell no longer needed items on eBay.

Without the web, the world of newspapers would always be more or less hidden from me, unless a sighted person read something to me. The truth is, even though there is very good optical character recognition software out there, newspaper layouts are simply too much to cope, let alone that most newspaper formats don’t fit on off-the-shelf scanners, or even those scanners produced by assistive technology firms.

For shopping, I would always have to rely on someone else to share what they thought the most interesting or compelling offerings in a shopping mall were. It would not be solely my decision what CD I’d buy, what electronic gadget was best for me etc. Oh yes, in many cases I would probably get what I wanted, but it would never be my 100% freedom of choice without depending on others to help me.

And to sell my no longer needed items, I would have to request the assistance of a magazine agent or enlist a sighted friend’s help with preparing an ad, getting it sent in to a magazine publisher, etc.

And these are just some of the things the web has allowed me as a blind person to do independently that were not possible before.

Also, other persons with disabilities benefit hugely from the web, like hearing-impaired who can communicate with anyone without the barrier of most others not speaking sign language. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the web has revolutionized the way persons with disabilities can participate in society.

And that brings me to a point David Baron raised. I can only echo what Wendy Chisholm said in response. I consider access to information just like anyone else to be a right I have as a human being, and the web is the only independent means of doing so. If anyone would try to take that away from me, I promise that I’d prosecute them to the full lawful extent possible.

However, let me emphasize this: I utterly disagree with John Foliot who said that Bespin should never have been released because it uses the Canvas element which is not accessible currently. Here are my reasons for that:

Bespin is not a released product, it’s a Mozilla Labs project that is in a highly experimental stage. Being as open as Mozilla, who share everything we do with the public, some might easily get misled and think that this is a released product already. I can only suggest: Read carefully, then you won’t fall into that trap.

Bespin shows us that the Canvas element can be used for more than just rendering some nice and shiny graphics. It shows that there are still deficiencies in the HTML 5 Canvas element design which need to be rectified as soon as possible. And this is what experiments are for, and always have been: Experiments are there to learn from and improve upon.

The history of the web and the development with the Canvas element we’re seeing now aren’t all that dissimilar in fact. Berners-Lee’s experimental and first theoretical proposal only later turned into something that could actually be useful, when he received his NeXt workstation where he could finally start programming the first web server. He could not have known what would once become the web as we know it today. The inception of the Canvas element probably also happened without realization that someone might actually build a code editor upon it.

In that sense, I am very very thankful for the Bespin team to share their work as early as they did. You guys have shown the web community that there is still work to be done to make Canvas content accessible to screen readers. So rather than whining about Bespin not being accessible, and pushing the developers into the defensive by reflexively yelling before thinking things through, we should get our act together and find out a way to make it accessible soonish! Bespin is a chance, not an evil deliberate move to exclude people with disabilities.

In that spirit, a wholehearted HAPPY BIRTHDAY WORLD WIDE WEB!

23 comments:

  1. Marco – it’s so great you are Mozilla’s a11y QA – we need someone level headed, pragmatic and interested in innovations. The fact that you are close to the metal and understand the issues and power of the web is a bonus ;-)

    The web is a big messy thing and will evolve rapidly just like the rest of our experiences. We have to embrace that while making sure it remains open to all.

    So a big thanks to you and a big thanks to Mozilla for realising this and being a catalyst.

    Cheers dude

  2. Bravo!, Marco. This is a stellar and timely post, and it captures my feelings about Bestpin exactly. Kudos to Mozilla for its commitment to an accessible Web. Let’s seize moments when we can work for change, instead of fearing it.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful, level-headed response to this discussion. My wife’s sister is deaf, so I’ve seen what the internet has done for accessibility. However, I’d like to ask John Foliot how he expects to force people to add alt tags to their Flickr images when there are still plenty of people that think that being deaf is the equivalent of being mentally retarded. The reality is that you cannot make everyone care about your cause, no matter how impassioned you are and no matter how important it is. You can legislate it for business and government, but I think you’d have a hard time passing a law requiring individuals to caption their YouTube videos and add alt tags to their Flickr uploads.

  4. Marco I sent a link to this blog to everyone at the ATRC. I can’t imagine anyone whose opinion could be more respected on these matters. I’m clapping dude… and the best part? You back up your words with deeds.

  5. Well, they are building a community around Bespin, they loudly think about creating a toolkit, which already has a codename and a logo (what for?). Yet it’s not clear that the fundamental a11y flaws can be solved. Frankly, that worries me. If it’s an experiment, it should always be communicated and presented as an experiment and only an experiment.

  6. @Dao I would have thought the fact its a Labs project would make that pretty clear – but I guess that label doesn’t always get clearly displayed, especially when there is so much excitement.

    I quite agree with your concerns – Marco and I had a brief conversation about that on IRC when BeSpin was announced. However there was a time when we didn’t have any accessibility APIs or WAI ARIA or the level of awareness about the issue we now have (still lots to do mind). So given enough concern, energy, imagination and constructive engagement with the BeSpin team …..

  7. Hey all, thanks for the kind words and constructive criticism re: Bespin. We definitely want to make Bespin as accessible as we can. To that end, we’re reaching out publicly and privately to as many a11y experts and interested parties as are willing to engage with us to work out the right answer to the problem.

    Tools like Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA, Visual Studio, and others have all hand-rolled their editor components using tools much like canvas–so we’re not sure the solution is to migrate Bespin to “contentEditable”. Instead, we’re very interested in working out a general solution to a11y for custom-rendered content, which seems to be an interest we share with many folks. (If in the end canvas proves a bad move, we can certainly migrate back to DOM elements, etc.; this is indeed a labs experiment.)

    Please ping us on our mailing list (http://groups.google.com/group/bespin/topics) or IRC (#bespin on irc.mozilla.org) to join in the conversation.

    Thanks!

    Ben Galbraith
    Bespin Team

  8. You wrote: “I utterly disagree with John Foliot who said that Bespin should never have been released because it uses the Canvas element which is not accessible currently.”

    Marco! This is *NOT* what I said, and is a mis-characterization of my posting.

    What I said, for the record, is:

    “Telling content authors that a workable fallback solution *must* exist for would have either stopped BeSpin in its tracks, or challenged its creators to solve the problem before launching the application.”

    I also stated:
    “I want the specification to ensure that accessibility *happens*, that it is not simply a ‘suggestion’, and every velvet glove needs an iron fist. And unlike some others, I have no issue being draconian about it. It does not have to be identical, it needs to be equivalent, and to say that this is not possible is narrow minded and unimaginative.”

    (Read the full email here: http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-html/2009Feb/0546.html)

    *NEITHER* of these statements wished that BeSpin was never undertaken. I am not some luddite who wants plain-text websites in black or white, and to suggest otherwise is false. I am lammenting the fact that the current specification allows new elements to the next generation specification to exist – fully compliant – and not *directly* address accessibility issues. My beef is with the HTML5 specification, and *NOT* with BeSpin, which is sadly nothing more than a high-visibility example of how the current specification fails accessibility.

    I freely acknowledge that BeSpin is an experiment – misguided in it’s approach perhaps (and others have concurred with *that* statement), but interesting and worth investigating. The real point I was trying to make is that if the HTML5 specification had sufficient accessibility requirements baked in, the BeSpin developers (creative and talented developers who already have indicated they had “thoughts about accessibility”) would have *HAD* to address them prior to releasing their proof-of-concept. Accessibility to adaptive technology such as screen readers would have been a design _requirement_, not a design _option_. This neither stifles creativity nor retards development any more than ensuring that buildings have wheelchair accessible doors and washroom stalls stifles architecture or building engineering. It’s a foundational requirement – work with it and stop bitching about it. Just like a building code, HTML5 must *ensure* that accessibility happens, not just hope for it.

    So, to be crystal clear, I have issues with , not BeSpin. As a non-sighted user, you should be concerned too. If as currently specified in HTML5 remains with the requirement for accessible fall-back simply as an *option*, what do you think the web of 2020 will be like? If you, like many non-sighted users today, have trouble with Flash-only sites, or sites being poorly built with Silverlight today, what do you think your ‘user-experience’ will be like when every third website a decade from now leverages the untold possibilities of with nothing more than the ‘option’ of ensuring it will be accessible? Mandating that has an accessible fall-back mechanism (and I don’t specify what or how right now, only that it exist) is the challenge that HTML5 must accept – to unleash half-baked and without this requirement all but ensures that it will be abused, and millions of web-users will be disadvantaged by it in the future. All of the wonderful advances you celebrate in your posting may gradually erode, simply because new HTML elements being proposed and released today where short-sighted and flawed. This need not be, and that is the fight I fight.

    There are many voices in the web accessibility community, mine is but one – perhaps a tad more militant than most, but get over it. However, I feel pretty confident in stating that the one thing the majority of web accessibility specialists will agree upon is that accessibility *MUST* be foundational, it cannot simply be a bolt-on solution applied at the 11th hour. Until such time as HTML5 accepts that truism and reflects that reality, there will be issues and I for one will point the finger. I don’t want to retard development, I want to ensure we get it right the first time, because my friend, there will be no going backwards.

What are your thoughts?