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On “separate but equal” design

Filed in: accessibility, rights, Web, Thu, Jun 24 2004 23:36 PT

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.

There is nothing, apart from embarrassingly hideous design, that prevents the main Man U. site from becoming reasonably accessible. There’s a menu done with dynamic HTML, but that can be overcome (in fact, that’ll be one of the first projects my newly-formed squadron of JavaScripters will be tackling). The rest of Man U.’s decision looks like it can be attributable to simple laziness — and if they’re too lazy to add a few sprigs of alt text and structural HTML to their site, what is the likelihood that they’ll be updating their secondary site “as often as the inaccessible (original) page”?

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.

12 responses to “On “separate but equal” design”

  1. […] nativ tilgængelig version
    Filed under: Tilgængelighed — peter @ 10.41

    bestkungfu weblog – On “separate but equal” design There are millions of Web users who don’t even consi […]

  2. Dan says:

    Outstanding points. I’ll be sure to refer designers who want to go the text only route to this essay in the future. I have tried to sell the idea in the past that it’s easier to do a single design the right way once rather than two not-as-good versions.

  3. Great post – I agree completely with respect to content sites such as Man United. However, I’m interested to know if the same arguments against an accessible alternative version hold true for web applications, such as Gmail. I’ve posed that question here – I’d love to hear your opinion.

  4. says:

    Why text-only is bad for you – and everyone else
    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…. A…

  5. Lad være med at lave en tilgængelig version af dit site
    Problem: Som webansvarlig vil du gerne have et veldesignet site, men det skal samtidig opfylde tilgængelighedskrav (enten fordi du arbejder i den offentlige sektor, eller fordi du har fundet ud af, at det også giver kommerciel mening). Løsning? CMS-Wat…

  6. flex-mx says:

    Sites & Web Apps: Sacrifices For Accessibility
    Separate But Equal? – Matt May from the W3C talks about a bad accessibility practice – when an “accessible” secondary site (often text-only) isn’t updated as often as the inaccessible (original) one….

  7. Andy Budd says:

    I couldn’t agree more. A few years back launched, an accessible version of their online shopping site. It was immediately hailed as the future of accessibility and congratulated by organisations such as the RNIB. However I felt then, as I do today, that it was kind of missing the point somewhat. It’s great that more people are able to buy stuff from Tesco now than they could before. In fact I believe many users started using this new service because it was much simpler than their regular site. However it’s still segregation, which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing. Saying that, the developers do look like they thought about the problem. I disagree with their outcomes (that the site couldn’t be made accessible without it negatively affecting everybody) but it’s interesting to see their justification.

  8. Andrew Green says:

    Whilst I can see the argument here, I genuinely feel that comparing accessible-versioning of sites to segregation and apartheid is antagonistic and unnecessary. For what it’s worth, I’ve written some stuff in response to this.

  9. Matt May says:

    Crossposted from Andrew’s site:

    Andrew said:

    The physically-disabled generally have separate toilets in public buildings. This isn’t segregation.

    The physically-disabled often have separate, allocated parking spaces in car parks. This isn’t segregation.

    There are sometimes push-button exits at wheelchair-height for otherwise difficult-to-manage doors. This isn’t segregation.

    Of course not. That’s reasonable accommodation. The goal of accommodating people with disabilities in the physical world is the same as what I’m advocating on my blog: to the greatest extent possible, make it so everybody can use your facilities, and only when it is impossible, create separate facilities.

    Now, a story about this. A colleague of mine, who uses a wheelchair, was speaking at a conference. The other panelists could walk up to the stage from the floor of the hall. She had to roll over to a neighboring building, take the elevator up, roll back into the conference building, take an elevator down, and then get to the podium. About a 20-minute trip, all told. Many of the rooms in the conference building were completely inaccessible, and this in a building that was constructed fairly recently. That is what I equate with segregation of Web sites.

    You mentioned that the main Woking site already satisfies the WCAG A level of conformance. To me, once you’ve done at least that much, there’s no problem with adding a second site for people to use at their choice.

    If you’re designing a (restroom), the first thing you want to do is make sure that the largest number of people possible can use the toilets and sinks and hand dryers. (And, you know, enter and leave the room. -ed.) It’s only after that effort that you work on specialized toilets for people with specific needs (e.g., a double-wide stall). So (Andrew has) done that, and that’s good.

    This is completely different from the design ethic of most people buying (and selling) text-only sites. Most don’t bother with any accessibility on their main site. (Witness Euro 2004’s site, which lacks even simple alt text.) Their approach is to say, “We don’t want those people to mess up our design. Therefore, we will make the least effort possible to accommodate them; we will point them to URLs that are different from what everyone else uses; we will fail to maintain services at the same level as our main site; we will deny them access to areas or features where it is convenient for us to do so.” That is absolutely the same ethic found in the racial segregation era, and that is what I’m calling out.

  10. excellent little article. i have to admit i nearly clobbered an external consultant looking at my work website when she suggested that i should implement a betsie-like text-only functionality…
    betsie and bobby have done more harm than good, as most people who know next to nothing about the real issues surrounding accessibility think they’re the be all and end all of accessible design…shudder.

  11. Tommy Olsson says:

    Well said. The main cause for ideas like these is ignorance. So-called web designers and developers who don’t know the first thing about standards or accessibility often seem to believe that those are inherently difficult, boring and expensive. A good designer/developer can create a beautiful site that is fully standards-compliant and very accessible. No need for segregation at all.

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