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Five Myths about Accessibility Myths

Filed in: accessibility, Tue, Jan 4 2011 05:06 PT

I’m an accessibility evangelist by trade. (No, seriously. It’s on my business card. My boss even knows.) Needless to say, such a job requires me to think seriously about what accessibility is all about, and how to communicate that to an audience that, frankly, has a lot of things on their mind, like keeping their jobs, turning a profit, or just not shooting up the place by the end of the day.

I would like to say that the material we have to offer people who want to learn about accessibility is plentiful (it is), and that it’s compelling enough to the constituencies we need to reach (it’s not).

The chief antipattern I can cite is the “accessibility myths” article. Search “accessibility myths” on Google and you’ll find a few hundred examples of this phenomenon. Ordinarily, these are blog posts citing a handful of elementary observations on the state of accessibility among designers and developers at the ground level. I know many, many people who have written them, nearly all of whose skills I respect. I want to ensure each of you that I’m not targeting any one of their lists in particular, except as symptoms of a greater problem. (I’m hoping this disclaimer will protect me from pages of comments defending previous attempts at this kind of writing.) The problem is that when one sets out such a line of demarcation–your information is false, mine is true–you may not be reaching the right people with the right news. Or if you are, you may not have made them feel motivated toward your cause.

In an effort to focus our energies a little better, I’ve put together the problems I find with the “accessibility myths” genre. And since it is better, pedagogically speaking, to present material in a form that the audience finds comfortable, here they are: five myths about accessibility myths.

1. Addressing knowledge gaps as “myths” is productive.

So let’s say I just walked into your RSS feed one morning and said, here are the five things you think are right about Mac OS X, that are wrong. That is to say: dear reader, I know you don’t know me, and obviously I don’t know you, but I’m going to start talking about how wrong you are about what may or may not be a common issue.

Wow. No wonder we’re so popular.

It’s clear that accessibility advocates frequently encounter the same kinds of opposition, and often fight dated or inaccurate information while trying to improve access to web content. But to stand on a soapbox and decry it all as mythology can be especially alienating.

So let’s try not to belittle people who we’re trying to rally to our side. Make sense? Good. I just don’t understand why everybody says you’re so dumb.

2. “Myth” articles are compelling and convincing.

Now that we’ve irritated the people we most need to reach, it’s time to move on to the banalities that set each specific accessibility expert off. Most myth posts begin with a no-brainer like “accessibility is about creating a text-only site” or “accessibility is all about blind people and screen readers.” These are generalizations at their most basic and uncontroversial. If you actually encounter someone in the wild who believes something like this, they’re not misinformed: they’re uninformed. It’s not a myth to someone who hasn’t ever heard or believed it.

The second type of misstep is to claim something is a myth when it’s actually something reasonable people can debate. One that I can think of that keeps recurring is the statement that accessibility work is “time-consuming, expensive and very technical”. That came from RNIB’s myths article from 2009. Here’s the thing: quite often, accessibility work is time-consuming, expensive and very technical. Especially to someone who doesn’t know all they need to know about it, or someone who went too far down the wrong path before accessibility was called to his or her attention. That is to say, your most critical audience.

It’s not the best strategy to say to someone who’s suffering through accessibility remediation that they’re not experiencing what they’re experiencing. Or worse, to tell them that they’re only in the situation they’re in because they didn’t come to us earlier. It causes accessibility advocates to seem out of touch with the reality of the lifecycle of web design and development. It’s good for people to be made aware of the problems that can arise. But for those staring those problems in the teeth, they’re looking for solutions. What they’re getting is: “I told you this would happen.”

3. “Myths” are actually the reason accessibility isn’t happening.

One of the most alluring parts of mythologizing accessibility problems is that we can take our anecdotal evidence and construct an entire worldview around it. It’s a great way to vent our frustrations when we aren’t enabled to change the outcome of a given site’s design, for example.

But the way I see it, maybe the myth in most myths articles is that people are really legitimately thinking any of these things. Might some people still believe that a text-only site is an acceptable way to check off that accessibility box on their launch checklist? Maybe. Was it a problem in 2003? You bet. Now? Less so. And with much better arguments in its favor, like an approach that also integrates scenarios for mobile users, as well.

One more thing here: the text-only thing isn’t a myth. It’s just what many people were taught, starting in 1998. (Remember that text-only sites are enshrined in paragraph 1194.22(k) of Section 508, which itself is a product of an assembly of accessibility experts, and which remains the primary reference for workers in all levels of government in the US.)

The goal of advocacy is to frame the debate regarding what you stand for, and why. When you begin the debate by arguing against what you’re not about, you are setting yourself up for failure. (Side note: remember this in 2012, Democrats.) It would be much better to say to people that times have changed, that we have better ways to do things, and that an integrated site is more equitable and less work-intensive overall than if we tell our readers they’re fooling themselves simply because they listened to the experts a dozen years ago.

4. “Myth” articles contain useful, actionable information.

Anybody who writes stuff like this knows that it’s not going to be any good until you come up with five red herrings to rail against. (Three, if you’re really an SEO person in disguise.) Where a lot of these articles go awry is in failing to provide information that people can integrate in their websites today. Go read a few dozen myths posts. Can you find more than a handful of real accessibility techniques there? Are there pointers to other resources so that people can learn more proactively? (Note to Roger Johansson: you, sir, are officially off the hook.)

When I put myself in the shoes of a web developer who’s investing five minutes into learning about accessibility, I tend to think I’d rather hear “you can use red and green if you’re also using other means to differentiate those elements” than “Myth: Red and green cannot be used.” This is a learning opportunity, not Opposite Day.

And while I’m piling on, if you can be confident about what people should and shouldn’t be doing for all content on the web, it should be easy enough to come up with some examples of what you’re talking about. Right?

5. “Myth” articles reach the audience they’re intended for.

Wanna know how I find out about new accessibility myths articles? My friends in the accessibility community retweet them. Incessantly. They’re inescapable. (At least, they used to be. Thanks, TweetDeck filters!) They touch a nerve with us, and we share them far and wide, like designers share that McSweeney’s Comic Sans piece. (Guilty.) We’re sharing the causes of our suffering. And there’s a place for that. But what is being practiced isn’t advocacy, it’s self-soothing.

Myths are “inside baseball” articles–the kind of thing you’d commiserate about over beers at your favorite accessibility conference. Are these kinds of posts really meant to recruit new accessibility advocates, or are they really only going to resonate with those of us who are already in the thick of things?

Think hard about who it is that you want to motivate with this kind of writing. If you put something like this together and find when you’re proofreading that it sounds like you’re venting about your day, it’s entirely likely that you’re preaching to the converted. And there are a lot of unconverted out there to choose from. Tailor your message to the needs of that audience, and you may have a better chance to make your case.

12 Responses to “Five Myths about Accessibility Myths”

  1. dboudreau says:

    Thanks for writing that up, it explains why you were critical of such articles a few weeks ago.

    You raise some very valid points about the fact that some (most?) myths articles / blog posts don’t address the right issues or address them the right way. I still believe that some of those myth articles are necessary, because they can debunk some myths for some people. If it helps even one change his views about accessibility, it’s already something isn’t it?

    Though I understand your problem with such articles, I still think the good ones are necessary. Roger Johansson’s bit is a good example.

    I don’t necessarly believe that myths are presented or need to be presented as knowledge gaps. Most times, people will come to acessibility with those ideas in mind and being educated to the fact that the “truth” may not be so black and white can be useful…

    Being a retweeter of such content myself, I sometimes feel the links I’m retweeting aren’t exactly what I wished they could have been, but for the most part, if there’s at least a piece of information that’s worth sharing in them, I will do so (unless there are blatantly falsities sprinkled in as well).

    • Phill says:

      Johansson’s article was good in 2005, but not in 2011. And neither are my articles from the last decade. And I think the biggest myth of the so-called accessibility myths is the one about accessibility being expensive and difficult. Even if you do accessibility up front and right – you still have extra testing, time, and some day, extra tools to purchase and upgrade. If it was so easy and cheap, why haven’t we done it better? Accessibility hasn’t gotten any easier since 2005, sure an old static HTML page is easier now, but who cares? Now we have to deal with 6 different mobile platforms (Droid, iOS, BB, Simbian, etc.) that are worse than the Windows 95 state back in the 90’s. OK, so iOS is getting a lot of good press, but tell that to a switch user. I do however, enjoying singing out of the same hymn book with all us accessibility experts – Happy New Year.

  2. Priti Rohra says:

    Very well written article!

    It is a golden rule that one should focus on the constructive aspect of things and preech to overcome the negativity and let the good (Accessibility) blossom! Same has been explained in this article & I completely agree with your views.

    Always BPositive
    Priti Rohra

  3. Rhys says:

    Although, actually, I’m pretty sure I retweeted McSweeney’s Comic Sans because it was HILARIOUS. No ‘nerves’, that would imply it was somehow offensive or pushed a button. No, it was just funny.

  4. Phill says:

    My new tag line for 2011 – “Accessibility is difficult and expensive, but I can help”. At least I’m echoing their pain point and offering a way to help instead of offending them by saying their stupid.
    Studying the audience is and tailoring the message is communications 101 – i.e., listen first, seek to understand, then seek to be understood. But of course that assumes the persons knows what their talking about. We all have various roles, some evangelists – but to whom? If I were talking like this to community activist I’d be shot, regulators and policy makers would run screaming, but to a team of frustrated developers is a different story. So when “myths” are taken out of context – meaning read by an unintended audience – it doesn’t work (or isn’t fair?). So one of my goals in 2011 is to be more explicit about the audience I’m addressing. This post is to all us so-called accessibility experts.

  5. Daniel Del Rio says:

    Awesome article!

    I’m not much an accessibility buff but I came across this article and have no idea why I decided to read it. :P

    It really is laid out nicely and brings up some great ideas about myth articles. Not just ones on accessibility but a lot of this stuff transcends to other topics as well.

    Thanks for taking the time to share!

    With Love In Christ
    Daniel Del Rio

  6. Wow, great article!!! You have proved to me that I was wrong… that there is indeed ONE (if only one) accessibility champion who is not an arrogant shyster opportunistically leveraging a climate of political correctness and web standards disorganization to bully money out of the pockets of people who actually work for a living.

    Okay, so that waxed bitter… but you’ll have to forgive me as I’ve had years of reading their trash (e.g. accessibility is never time-consuming, expensive, nor very technical).

  7. James Pepper says:

    I can make PDF documents and forms speak in Hindi and in languages all around the world including Japanese. I can teach ordinary people with no special training in accessibility to make these files, quickly and efficiently. If I had a room full of people we could make all the forms for the Japanese recovery in a matter of days, but to you guys it would take months or years!

    Accessibility has been turned into this thing where people expect it to be very expensive and time consuming and yet I can make documents almost as fast as if I were writing them out in Microsoft Word and I can make them accessible to NVDA.

    Quite frankly I think the naysayers have a point and that is that accessibility is as expensive as the accessibility community wants it to be. You have a vested interest in making this as complicated as possible because it creates jobs, but what if ordinary people could make content accessible to the blind, then we would have universal access but most of you would be out of work!

    I developed this process because I was blind, I had tunnel vision for 11 years and then I got my eyesight back, I developed this process by doing what the blind do, using whatever means necessary to make content accessible and by doing that I discovered the solutions to many problems that even Adobe, Apple and Microsoft have not fixed. Perhaps you need a new perspective on accessibility to get the innovations!

  8. Matt May says:

    It is a particularly unfortunate antipattern for someone to come in having solved part of a problem and then coming to tell everyone he (it’s almost always a he) has solved the whole problem. That’s called boiling the ocean. Good luck with that. You are applying systematic problem solving to a human problem, and the humans will always find new ways to confound you.

    Secondly, I, and most of my colleagues, I would imagine, would happily move on to some other big problem, if we could solve the existing problem of universal access. The self-preservationists in this community are relatively few, and they’re relatively well-known as such. The rest have been working at this for up to the last 40 years, and if the problem were truly as easy as you make it out to be, we’d all have packed up and become usability gurus or whatever by now. But do feel free to paint everyone you’re trying to sell your own brand of snake oil with the same brush, and see how far that gets you.

  9. James Pepper says:

    No, thats not what I am trying to say, the problem today is that if you come at this problem from a completely different perspective, there is no place in the world of accessibility for new ideas from individuals, especially from the people who have to use your products. You only want free ideas, you ask people to give away their rights to their work, for what? Or you want non profits to develop this stuff for you, but individuals who figure out problems, no you reject them out of hand, debase them if you can because nobody but you can figure out problems.

    If we are going to innovate, you have to listen to people who actually use the products you make, who see a little of innovation here and there, but still the content is not accessible. The standards should be changed to make content completely accessible where all of the content is achieveable using the device or program developed and if you do not do this, then all the innovations are meaningless, content is not being delivered and even if some of it is accessible it is not enough! You are confortable with partial accessibility but this is a win loose situation, there is no middle ground.

    If you are so open to new ideas, how come adobe didn’t present anything new at CSUN? anything, anything? anything useful? Oh yes you showed people how to tag content, yes technology from what 8 years ago! Innovating!

  10. Matt says:

    What’s funny is, had you engaged many of the same people you’re haranguing here (and other blogs, and on email, and over Twitter), you might actually be able not only to know what’s new at Adobe, but maybe even to show what it is you’re doing and get support. But so far, you strike me as one in a long line of people who seem to have everything figured out, but doesn’t have anything to show as evidence.

    As far as giving things away goes: we’ve been one of NVDA’s main sources of financial support. I don’t know what you have working, because so far all you’ve shown is talk, but if it’s related to PDF, that’s most likely based on work we funded.

    So, go ahead and show me your new idea, if that’s what you want. But kindly stop accusing Adobe of actions it doesn’t engage in.

    In any case, this really has nothing to do with the topic of this post, so if you were just looking for a way to troll me, this is not the place. My email is really easy to figure out. (Hey, you know what? You could have gotten it on a neatly printed and Brailled card that fits in your wallet if you had only walked up to me in person at CSUN. I was not hard to find.)

  11. James Pepper says:

    This all comes down to the problem of IP. Everyone wants ideas for free, they do not want to protect anyones Intellectual property. Interestingly the accesibility groups understand this but the companies expect people to just give their ideas away. If you want new ideas you have to protext IP. This is why you do not innovate there is no way for individuals to show their work without giving away their rights. So nothing happens.

    NVDA good for you to support it, it is a good thing. Google supports them too.

    Everyone went to CSUN to find the new cool stuff and to pat everyone else on the back and that is important, but we cannot loose sight of the fact that the blind generally do not have access to content, that they cannot afford most of the stuff everyone is selling. That is it extremely expensive to make this content and we are stuck in a postition where you have to be an expert to make this content reasonably accessible. Things are better to those who can afford the technology but for everyone else, this is not a time of celebration, they are stuck in the same conditions with content inaccessible to them.

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