Accessibility - what is it good for?

There are those days when you watch a discussion unfold on Twitter, and a point is reached where a statement is made that leaves you more or less speechless for a while.

In this case, it was a discussion started by a German web developer who had to review some applicants for his company, young minds who are supposed to enrich the team they’re joining. He himself is very versed in terms of accessibility, and infused the rest of the existing company with that spirit. He stated more than once how surprised he was how little these young applicants knew about even the most basic rules of web accessibility, such as headings, form element labeling, and alternative texts for images. Others chimed in, encouraging him to do what he was doing, and also advertising it, since it clearly is something that still sets this web dev company apart from many others.

Others chimed in as well, in particular the CEO of one web dev company who stated that accessibility hasn’t played a part in his thinking for over ten years, followed by an apology. He closed with the following tweet, which basically brought the whole discussion flow to an instant halt:

Accessibility isn’t part of the recent HTML5 and CSS3 movement. Today beginners don’t get in touch with a11y.

And this was the point that left me speechless for a while, too. Here I am, working at Mozilla, a not for profit organization that has accessibility in its manifesto, that aspires to keep the web open and accessible to everyone. I am fortunate to be a known speaker in the German-speaking world and beyond, and this particular person even watched me talk at a German web conference in December of last year. But still that statement!

I talked with my partner about this –we had also covered the general topic in the past–, and the statement confirms a feeling that is causing frustration among many web accessibility evangelists: We’ve all been teaching and preaching and begging for the basic principles since when? 2000? Even earlier than that? Let’s say for roughly the past 15 years. The HTML5 committees have how many accessibility-related task forces, working groups and what not? I lost track. And here, a web developer comes along and simply states that young people don’t get in touch with accessibility at all these days, and that it isn’t part of the recent HTML5 and CSS3 movement.

After asking him how he arrived at that conclusion, he confirmed my feeling that had dawned slowly, but that, for whatever reason, I had not allowed to reach the surface of my thinking completely:

Sure there’s discussion in the committees. But no mainstream HTML/CSS site is covering that. It’s not part of the current agenda.

And this is the problem! Right there! Accessibility is a niche. Even though 20 percent of the US population have one form of disability or another, and the number of elderly people is growing year by year, accessibility is, in the broad population’s thoughts, a niche. An extra feature that one can put on an agenda, a feature list that will never be dealt with, something to keep in mind if and when there’s time.

In addition, the accessibility community is keeping it there. There’s a circle of people who know all this stuff, who meet at four or five conferences a year and tell each other their newest discoveries, applaud each other, and then go on to fight about longdesc on the zillion W3C mailing lists.

But accessibility never reaches the mainstream. Books are published about accessibility specifically. None of these topics ever make it into standard best-practices books. There are special guidelines for web content accessibility, which is a check list that scares the hell out of everyone who just looks at the mere size of the document.

There are sites like WebAIM that document progress in web accessibility, or lack of it, in annual screen reader surveys that show roughly the same picture since they were first started in 2008.

Yes, there have been some advances in some content management systems that incorporate more semantically correct and guideline-conformant coding here and there. And yes, Flash is slowly dying, replaced by Canvas which needs a lot of extra work to make it accessible.

This blog post is by no means about diminishing the accomplishments the accessibility community has made. But we need to go beyond that! We need to leave our comfortable niche and turn the accessibility extra way into the standards way. Make people use headings, correct form element labeling, and other stuff just because it is the right thing to do that benefits everyone, not because “it’s an accessibility requirement”. Accessibility needs to finally shake off the smell of being an unloved burden to meet some government criteria. Every book any web dev buys must simply state as a best practice, without mentioning accessibility at all, that for labeling an input one uses the label element, and that the for attribute of that label element needs to point to the id of the input to be labeled. As a test case, state that this way, a user can also click on the label to get the cursor right. Don’t bother people with screen readers at all. They don’t need to know for these things.

We must get to a point where teachers give their students lesser grade if they deliver semantically incorrect work. An excuse like “but it works” should not be enough to get a good grade.

If we don’t do that, if we do not manage to kick ourselves and each other in the butt and get the accessibility movement into the mainstream world, if we do not manage to make it transparent except maybe for the edge cases, if it does not lose its scary aspects, its smell of the black sheep, if it stays in its niche and we meet at the same conferences in five or ten years still, then the lines from that Bruce Springsteen song will indeed ring true: “What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING!”

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