Barriers to Improving the Web Accessibility Game Plan
This past March, Jared Smith moderated a session at CSUN titled ”Do We Need To Change the Web Accessibility Game Plan”. The discussion at and after the session was filled with interesting perspectives. The diversity of viewpoints demonstrates what a complex topic this really is. I’d like to take my stab at addressing this topic, inspired by this blog post by Vlad Alexander which kicked off the original conversation:
The problem is that the Web has not become significantly more accessible in the last 5 years. Will it become significantly more accessible 5 years from now? 10 years from now? 15 years from now? Is our current strategy to make the Web accessible working? Are there any signs on the horizon that things are going to improve, or are we treading water? Is most of our energy being used not to fight for new accessibility features but to stop the erosion of existing ones? Do we need a new game plan?
I would say, without a doubt, that we (accessibility advocates/ evangelists/ consultants/ whatever) definitely need a new game plan. Overall accessibility people are viewed as a band of boorish hysterics by most of the people we come across. Everyone not already “clued in” to accessibility approaches us like we’re Milton from Office Space. We definitely need to improve our game plan. To do so, we need to recognize what things stand in our way.
Low Barrier to Entry (Developers)
I had the fortune, this past May, to have dinner at the home of Jim Thatcher with a number of people I admire including Wayne Dick, Sharron & Ron Rush, Ann Chadwick-Dias, Marguerite Bergel, and Lainey Feingold. During the evening’s conversation, Lainey asked a great question about what people thought explained why the web was inaccessible. My answer was that it was primarily due to the low barrier to entry for someone to get a job as a developer. In order to become a software or web developer, all you need to do is buy/ download an IDE and learn to use it competently. This is vastly different than in the brick & mortar world where engineers must meet certain criteria in order to become an engineer. You will not get a job as an engineer without meeting the requirements for licensure. Furthermore as an engineer does his job, his work is subject to inspection to ensure it is being done in accordance with all relevant codes. Such is not the case for web developers and software “engineers”. In order to get a job in web development, all you often need to do is pass an interview and present a portfolio of past work which ostensibly indicates that you can perform the work called for in that role. That role often doesn’t include accessibility.
The first step to changing the accessibility game plan will be to ensure that everyone involved in creating websites has been properly trained in accessibility. This includes designers, developers, content creators, project managers. Because so many developers are self-taught, they are not going to know accessibility unless they’ve been expected to know it. Developers aren’t evil for not knowing accessibility, they’re just uneducated. We need to educate them.
Low Barrier to Entry (Accessibility People)
As Derek Featherstone said in 2006: In order to become an accessibility consultant, all you need to do is buy some business cards with the title “Accessibility Consultant”. I’m not going to lie, in the early parts of my career, I was one of those people. Back in about 2003 or so I thought that I was an expert in accessibility because I knew web development and because I had read some articles and diligently read e-mail discussion lists on the topic. Man, was I wrong! At that time, I had never used an assistive technology and had never even seen a user with disabilities interact with my website. I was clueless. Even worse: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wasn’t alone and still wouldn’t be alone. Just as most developers are self-taught, so are most accessibility people. The disparities in the level of knowledge among those in the accessibility industry is massive.
The next step to changing the accessibility game plan is to educate the people whose job it is to do accessibility work. Ideally this should be handled through an independent certification program and/ or through the inclusion of accessibility in computer science programs.
Preaching to the Converted
We need to stop spending so much time talking to each other and start talking to others. The accessibility industry is small. There are really only four viable enterprise-class web accessibility testing tools. There are only about five consulting firms which have the capacity to deal with large clients. Then there are about three or four dozen most notable people in this industry. That’s really tiny if you think about it. For us to make a significant impact to the overall state of web accessibility, we need to stop preaching to the converted and start branching out to non-believers.
The accessibility game plan can be improved by reaching out to others:
- Join/ start your local Refresh group
- Attend an area Bar Camp
- Find a local Web Development Meetup
- Join your local UPA Chapter
- Attend or present at a non-accessibility related conference like Java One, PHPTek, or Internet Retailer
Whatever we do, we need to stop talking to each other and start talking to others. We need to begin participating in web-related communities that are not accessibility and begin advocating for accessibility within those communities.
The Industry is Still Young
All (yes, all) of the largest accessibility companies in the United States were founded between 1998 and 2000. The Web Accessibility Initiative was launched in 1997 The first WCAG guidelines were published in 1999. Freedom-Scientific was founded in 2000. All-in-all, this industry is still very young. It has only been recently, from my perspective, that the outside world has cared much about accessibility. We need to keep this in perspective and understand that change doesn’t happen over night. Our goal in this regard should be to keep applying pressure. Increased awareness will come if we remain diligent but patient in continuing to apply pressure.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is rampant in accessibility. As an industry, we need to re-evaluate our approaches to selling what we do. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been in which devolved into a FUD-based rant when one side of the discussion expressed disagreement with the importance of accessibility. In fact, I’ve been prone to do so myself in the past. As an industry we need to abandon self-righteousness, argumentativeness, threats, and hysteria and take a different approach to selling accessibility. I believe we need to be honest and open about the benefits (and lack thereof in some cases) of accessibility and the time and money involved, where appropriate. We need to learn how to speak with others about accessibility and not at them. If we can educate outsiders so that they understand accessibility, we can get them to agree with us a lot easier than by threatening them.
NOTE: I don’t mean to suggest that we should not discuss Risk. We should definitely discuss Risk, as it is a very real concern for some organizations. At the same time, we should not overstate the risk people face. If their risk is small, we should acknowledge that.
Lacking Body of Knowledge
There is a shocking lack of independent and open knowledge out there on accessibility. If we were to assemble a full compendium of information that exists on accessibility on the web, what we’d find is that the information is incomplete, inconclusive, and inconsistent. The earliest publication of scholarly articles on Web Accessibility is around 1996. In total, there are 11,500 results in Google scholar for the search string “Web Accessibility”. Of those 11,500 results there are probably thousands which are irrelevant. By contrast, the search string “Project Management” returns 513,000 results. While this isn’t a perfect comparison, it demonstrates the low amount of scholarly information on the topic.
As an industry, everyone involved in accessibility tends to keep everything they do secret, as if they’re guarding national intelligence. We need to begin sharing knowledge with one another and collaborating on research. Disability rights organizations need to begin funding scholarly research and we need to begin creating a cohesive body of knowledge which covers the best practices necessary for making an accessible web. By doing so, we’ll be able to provide clear, cohesive guidance to those who are new to accessibility and accessible web development.
Users Need to Become Their Own Advocates
Ultimately, accessibility is about people – people who need the web to be accessible in order to be successful in its use. One of the barriers I see to convincing organizations into making their sites accessible is that they don’t understand the impact an inaccessible site makes. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: people aren’t evil because their website is inaccessible. Their website is inaccessible because they’re ignorant. They will remain ignorant until we can educate them. One important way to do that is for users to contact organizations about their inaccessible site. Organizations respond to pressure from the outside. If no pressure is applied, no response is made. Therefore users need to become their own advocates for an accessible web by applying some of that pressure themselves.
We Need to Offer Pragmatic Solutions, Not Preaching and Problems
The final thing I’d like to mention is that we in the accessibility industry need to change our mindset from presenting problems to presenting solutions. Accessibility, as a topic, carries with it the negative impression that we’ve created. Through constantly complaining, nagging, and telling people how wrong they are, we’ve made our very existence burdensome to others. We’re the Debbie Downer of IT. Developers think of us as people who are always telling them they can’t do things because of accessibility. We need to stop telling people ‘No’ and start offering them specific solutions about “How” to meet their goals accessibly. Developers will then look at us as the provider of pragmatic accessibility solutions and not the thorn in their side that they see us as now.
In answering the original question “Do we need to change the web accessibility game plan” I guess we should first acknowledge that so far we’ve positioned ourselves as antagonistic toward developers and business owners. We need to change this impression if we’re to move forward in improving the accessibility game plan.