It seems a lot of Web designers are trying to buy their way out of good design again. I’ve had a number of people ask me recently not how to create an accessible Web site — a question I would gladly answer — but how to create a text-only site as an end run around having to do anything with the site they already have.
This is wrong. Do not do this.
I choose the term “separate but equal” for this school of design specifically because of what that term connotes. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court found in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that it was legal to offer separate services to white and black customers, as long as those services were “equal”. But segregated services were never — and are never — equal. The very point of segregation is to ensure the quality of the services provided to one group, at the expense of the other.
It is this way with the text-only, or secondary “accessible” site. This stripped-down, often hard-to-find, and nearly universally unsightly design concept is intended to provide legal cover from, rather than service to, users with disabilities. Text-only sites rarely convey anywhere near the depth or richness of the main site. These sites shunt users with disabilities off into a corner, just so that designers can avoid taking the necessary steps to make their single site accessible. This practice does not only parallel Plessy — it’s the same damn thing. These days, it’s called discrimination.
The group that created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 anticipated the use of secondary text-only sites to satisfy the guidelines’ requirements. In fact, five to seven years ago when they were working on the guidelines, that was common practice. But even then, most people knew it wasn’t good enough, and the authors said as much in the document. Here’s what WCAG 1.0 says about secondary sites:
11.4 If, after best efforts, you cannot create an accessible page, provide a link to an alternative page that uses W3C technologies, is accessible, has equivalent information (or functionality), and is updated as often as the inaccessible (original) page. [Priority 1]
Best effort means more than some (or no) effort. It means you have taken a hard look at your site, and found that there is something you just can’t do accessibly. The bar for this claim is miles higher in 2004 than it was in 1999: with well-established techniques on how to use the semantics of HTML and presentation capabilities of CSS, the set of what absolutely cannot be done is very small. And if you do go this route, creating a secondary site, you may not claim any higher than Single-A conformance. This is not a magic get-out-of-accessibility-free pass, as someone will likely find out when, for example, the lawsuits start rolling out in the U.K., where WCAG Double-A conformance is the law.
Most of the stories I can think of in recent weeks come from the U.K. Accessify notes (with the same righteous indignation) a story about Manchester United’s text-only site. The English Premier League footballers’ site is a classically unnecessary fork in the road. Once you make that turn for the “accessible” site, you will never find your way back — and if a friend sends you a link to the main site, you change universes, perhaps never to return again. How one even finds the “accessible” version of the site from the main site is an exercise left to the reader.
The Euro 2004 site isn’t any different. In fact, on this day, it’s worse: some eight hours after host Portugal eliminated England in the quarterfinals, there was nary a mention of it on the “accessible” site. Even the scoreboard fails to help, as it reads “2-2″, without mentioning that Portugal won on penalty kicks, 6-5. If you happen to be blind, you might want to listen to the audio feed featured prominently on the main site’s home page. No dice: if it isn’t text, you’re not getting it. Of course, they proudly proclaim themselves “AAA Bobby Approved.”
Back to Plessy v. Ferguson. The plaintiff in this case, Homer Plessy, was known, in 19th-century culture, as “colored.” But in point of fact, he was only one-eighth black. Looking at him, one may not have known he was black at all. Which begs the question: what makes a man “black”? Is it a simple binary switch? Of course not. It’s a continuum, consisting not only of genetic makeup, but also social identity.
And so is disability. Just who are these designers trying to target? Surely, users who are blind have certain requirements, like alternate text on images and text that doesn’t read nonsensically in a screen reader, but any designer worth their salt can do that with any site design. Users with low vision may want to bump up the size of the fonts, or change the contrast between text and background. Still widely feasible. This is too often considered the full set of disabilities to be remediated: it means no vision or low vision, and that’s it.
But what about when it’s not black and white? I have attention deficit disorder, and it’s hard for me to read text when images are flashing or moving in my field of view. Am I “disabled,” and thus instructed to find and use the “accessible version” of your site, and all others? What about people who lack the motor skills to operate a mouse for one reason or another? Where do they go, and how do they know that? Any well-designed site would afford me — and everyone else — smartly-coded, user-controllable content. And in the process, they would avoid having to write that second site in the first place.
There are millions of Web users who don’t even consider themselves disabled: you might know one as “Dad” or “Grandpa,” who can’t quite see as well as they used to, or never quite got the hang of mousing around. Users like these wouldn’t know an “accessible” from a crucible. They’re going to use your site, and they’re going to get stuck. And they’re going to get angry, especially if you hard-coded the font size below their ability to read it. How, praytell, will that little disability ghetto you coded save you now?
The Brown v. Board of Education case, whose 50th anniversary was recently celebrated, settled the issue brought up by the Plessy verdict, by saying, essentially, what we all know by now: “separate but equal” is never equal. Not then, and certainly not now.
It is time to integrate your sites.