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!