Web Accessibility Myths 2011 part 2
At the end of 2011 I published the first part of my Web Accessibility Myths 2011 blog, detailing 6 myths that are holding back the effectiveness of the arguments of many accessibility advocates.
The response from the web accessibility community was excellent, with many expressions of support for my views, and much discussion around them, some of which has already improved this follow-up.
In today’s part two, I’m going to cover ten more important myths, around audience, personalisation, assistive technology use, and mobile website use, which also need puncturing for us to be more effective.
I hope this spurs us on to further discussion, and more success in 2012.
New: get it in pictures…
7. Accessibility and inclusive design are anti-creative
This is so far away from being the truth it appals me that we still have to combat this myth now, even though myths articles back to Webcredible’s in 2005 have tried to shoot it down.
But it’s still out there, prompted no doubt by all the occasions an accessibility advocate has vetoed a great bit of design because it’s not accessible for everyone.
What time-starved people often miss is that accessibility isn’t anti-creative but should actually prompt more creativity. As I say in my Beyond Inclusion and Reverse Inclusion blog:
“Anyone who says accessibility or inclusion constrains creativity just isn’t trying hard enough. For me, it’s the most challenging, creative work I’ve ever had the pleasure to be involved with. Putting together the needs of disabled and elderly people and the possibilities available through emerging technologies is the most creative game in town.”
A number of inclusion organisations and I are planning to hold some events this year where we invite people in the creative industries to talk with us on this subject. If you’d like to be part of that, please contact us.
8. Accessibility and inclusive design help everyone
Sorry, but this isn’t the case.
While the aim of accessibility and inclusive Design is to produce a website or app that works for everybody, that is rarely deliverable because different groups of people may have conflicting needs and preferences.
To give an example that is too rarely considered, let’s take the key accessibility aim of simplicity.
This is one need that all disabled and elderly groups have in common. Hardly anyone would disagree that they want products to be as simple as possible.
Simplicity generally means less functionality, but we usually accept that. Think of the simplicity of Apple phones, or of the original Google homepage…
The problem is that we all expect this on our own terms. We all want simplicity. But we don’t want products to sacrifice the functionality we particularly want in the cause of that simplicity. And, while most people can agree what the most important ‘core’ aspects of a website are, we often disagree about what ‘less important’ functionality is essential.
What’s worse, even the biggest purveyors of ‘simple’ – Google and Apple – love adding functionality to their products, because that’s what counts for progress (and media coverage) in the web world. Apple added over 200 new features to iOS 5. And Google are sneaking in functionality around the edges of their homepage ‘to give more prominence to their other services‘.
I’m not saying they’re wrong – I like what I see of iOS 5, and google are doing a great job of keeping the core functionality of their search product separate from the rest of the services you may or may not want.
But this tends to prove that the only way of giving each person the ‘simple’ version of a website or product they want is via personalisation.
Is that why so many people are afraid of it in the accessibility world?
We should be the greatest advocates for personalisation, based on an understanding of users’ needs, rather than users’ less important preferences.
For Inclusive Design to truly help everyone, it has to include personalisation (as Erlend Øverby commented on part one of this blog). Otherwise we aren’t availing ourselves of one of the main benefits of the web: that it’s software.
9. Disabled people use assistive technologies
This sounds obvious, right? It’s at the heart of our ideas about accessibility…
Unfortunately it’s also untrue for many disabled people.
Research that I commissioned at the BBC found the following two facts:
- 57% of all computer users (aged 18-64) are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of Assistive Technology to help their computer use (Microsoft/Forrester Research Study, 2003, USA)
- 6-8% of web users use an Assistive Technology to access the Internet (Office for Disability Issues, 2008, UK)
Granted there might be differences between research methodologies, and the Forrester research was in the USA while the ODI research was in the UK. But the difference between 6-8% and 57% is huge and hard to ignore.
Positively, this means that there is a huge potential untapped market out there for Assistive Technologies. Negatively, it means that many of the people who would benefit from those Assistive Technologies are currently not doing so. Which also means that one of the pillars on which most accessibility thinking is based is rather shaky.
So if you were assuming that all your potential disabled users would be able to use your site if you coded it right, you may need to think again.
We are currently expecting disabled and elderly people to have ‘helped themselves’ to the right Assistive Technologies. But deeper research has found that, even with helpful websites like My Web My Way (which I won the BIMA for in 2006) and organisations like AbilityNet to help people get the ATs they need, this is expecting too much from many disabled people.
So don’t be surprised if disabled and elderly people want your website to provide some features which browsers or Assistive Technologies can already give them, like text resize controls or the ability to change colour schemes.
Thankfully ways ahead are being looked at, in the area of personalisation: check out my full slides on the research and vision behind MyDisplay, and the GPII.
10. Accessibility’s just about blind people – now for platforms
In fact, if you look at the numbers of people in different disabled groups who could benefit most from considerations of accessibility, the 180,000 blind people are a tiny fraction of the picture. In fact they only make up 1.6% of the disabled population of the UK. And the percentage figures in other countries are around the same.
Yet much of accessibility thinking is still mired in trying to help less than 2% of the people who might benefit.
Many of the accessibility advocacy community (including those who are blind) have been trying to bust this myth for years, and I think we’ve generally got our message across for web accessibility now, although NFB’s action against Google Docs has probably muddied the waters somewhat.
However, the same myth seems to have moved from web accessibility to platforms: operating systems, digital devices and mobile accessibility.
How else do you explain Apple’s iPhone accessibility policy that, for those outside the organisation at least, seems to be: do all we can to make all of our products work for blind people (and some less vision-impaired people), and forget everyone with other disabilities? While this is great for blind people, it seems to make no sense economically, and can only be understood by looking at America’s Section 508, which is still very biased towards blind people’s needs. This means, if Apple want their products in American schools, they have to make them work for blind people, to the exclusion of looking at the business case behind making them work better for other disabled and elderly people.
And it’s not just Apple, Google’s Android has much the same focus.
Unfortunately the accessibility advocacy community aren’t really challenging this. If you look at the sessions on mobile at the world’s top accessibility conference – CSUN 2012, at which I’m speaking on Case-studies of implementing BS8878 – you’ll find most are about the needs of blind and vision impaired users, and rarely are the needs of groups like people with dyslexia mentioned.
Hopefully, Section 508′s rewrite (now available for public comment) will reflect the number of people with each disability rather more than how loud their advocacy group are. It can’t come soon enough for those with dyslexia, literacy or learning difficulties, whose lobbyists aren’t getting leverage any other way.
11. Text is more accessible than other media
If more people in the accessibility community appreciated myth 10, this myth would have already been busted. Unfortunately, that’s not the case yet.
So here it is in black and white: text is not the pinnacle of accessibility.
Ask the four million people in the UK who have dyslexia, literacy or learning difficulties. These guys would love you to remove much of the text from your website, and replace it with carefully selected, informational images and video.
I’d love it if, for a while at least, we turned the accessibility orthodoxy on its head, and all text had to have a ‘video equivalent’ created for it ‘for accessibility reasons’.
Although the cost would be considerable, that 360-degree change would make the web more accessible for more disabled people. And it might make all of us think a bit more, and understand that multimedia is good, not bad, for accessibility.
12. The most important accessibility requirement for images is alt-text
Again, in a world where blind people’s needs are paramount this myth would be true.
But in the real world, where there are larger numbers of people who prefer images to text than people who can’t see images, the most important thing to remember about accessibility of images is: to choose your image well.
Make sure your image serves its purpose, communicates what you are trying to say, and ideally does so in a way that someone who can’t understand the text alongside it can still get the gist of what you are communicating.
That’s hard to do. There is an art to choosing the right image – just ask any picture/art editor. And everyone, including me, needs to start appreciating those picture editors more and learning from their experience (or, even better, get yourself on John Corcoran’s brilliant Beyond Big Type inclusive design training). They may have a more important role to play in making sites and apps accessible than we give them credit for.
13. The most important people in accessibility are developers
I don’t want to play down how important it is for people like Rich Schwerdtfeger, Bruce Lawson and Steve Faulkner to get WAI-ARIA and HTML 5 into the right shape to give us the right technical framework on which to build accessible code.
Their work is essential and necessary to enable accessibility.
But it’s not sufficient to make people actually implement it.
As I said in my BS8878 introductory article in 2010, accessibility is facilitated or constrained by many people in web production teams, and most notably by the team’s Product Manager. If there’s a point person we really need to get on side, they are likely to have that job title.
Put it this way: who do you think has more impact on whether Apple products include accessibility features: Steve Jobs, or the developers behind iOS and OS-X? As Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Steve Jobs makes clear, he dictated what functionality and look and feel would be in Apple products; the developers just had to make happen what he wanted.
And if you want to see who’s next in the importance list, I’d suggest the Procurement Manager, as many products are now mashed together from commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS). And, if you’re the Product Manager of a COTS, you’ll only prioritise accessibility over other possible features of your product if you know that Procurement Managers are going to require this in deciding whether to purchase your software.
14. It doesn’t matter if your mobile site/app isn’t accessible, just as long as the desktop version is
Granted, it’s still in debate whether the mobile and desktop versions of a site constitute separate services in legal terms (lawyer Martin Sloan and I are still having a great discussion on it…)
However, let’s look at some demographics. Disabled people are less likely to be working than non-disabled people (sad but true). So they are more likely to be in the C2DE demographic. And, according to research from the UK Dept of Work and Pensions (no link yet I’m afraid), people in this demographic are more likely to access the web through a cheap smartphone than a laptop + broadband connection.
So, if you can’t afford to make both your desktop and mobile sites accessible, it might just be worth considering focusing on the mobile site or app’s accessibility, not the desktop version’s.
15. Websites have to be accessible from the start
While Ian Pouncey has already addressed a variant on this myth – Content that isn’t 100% accessible shouldn’t be published – I believe it’s still prevalent among much of the accessibility community because we miss the iterative nature of much of web development and publication, where websites and apps go through version after version quickly.
Most of the best minds in web product management believe version 1 of a website needs to be a minimal viable product, with a versioning strategy to improve it over time (see my How to know when your site is ready to launch blog).
However our understanding of the ‘reasonableness’ of accessibility rarely takes this into account. We all know that accessibility costs less if it’s implemented from the early phase of a project (often having a variant on Bill Graham’s chart on the cost of repairing defects at different stages of production in our minds).
So we get scared if accessibility isn’t factored in right at the start.
And we forget to consider the other factors in the business model of the organisations we advise.
For example: you’ll rarely get accessibility onto the agenda of a start-up which is still playing with ideas of what its website should be. And that’s usually a good choice for sites trying new and innovative ideas that may or may not work. I still agree with DirectGov’s decision to leave accessibility until they created their beta service, and it would have been foolhardy to have held back BBC iPlayer’s launch (in Dec 2005) until audio-described programmes could be included (in August 2009).
If we advocates understand the realities of organisations’ business models, we’ve got a much better chance of picking our moment to engage.
So maybe accessibility from the start isn’t always essential.
Maybe a better strategy would focus on embedding inclusive design thinking into organisations when they are re-architecting their products as they become successful. Because if we don’t embed accessibility in the organisation’s culture, successive versions of their products might include or discount accessibility based on the whim of the team doing that version at that time.
16. BS8878 is just for huge companies
So, if embedding accessibility is important in the long term, what’s the best way of doing it?
As the lead-author of British Standard BS8878 I guess I’m biased, but it’s the only accessibility Standard that has been developed to help organisations do that embedding, and many organisations in the UK are already gaining the benefits of this.
However, some people are unsure whether the Standard can help smaller organisations and SMEs, or if it’s just for large organisations with lots to lose from neglecting accessibility.
To address this misconception I’ve already published the first 3 blogs in a series of 16 on How BS8878 can help SMEs create good websites.
Note that I say ‘good websites’ rather than ‘accessible websites’ because BS 8878 has been shown to help SMEs create effective websites, not just accessible ones.
Have your say – shape the debate
So there you go – the start of a New Year has hopefully been a good time to clear out these particular myths. Thanks for reading.
The points in my blog are challenging to many accepted views of accessibility. But they are based on years of the sort of strategic research we do at Hassell Inclusion, and I believe they would make accessibility advocates more effective.
And you can make this blog more effective by contributing your experience here. So please:
- leave me a comment if you agree and want to add to my arguments; or
- leave me a comment to tell me where your research and experience says I’m wrong
And, if you’ve liked these insights, sign up to the Hassell Inclusion newsletter for more as 2012 progresses.
As always, I’ll base them on the best research I can find.