Filed in: accessibility, Tue, Jan 4 2011 05:06 PT
Iâ€™m an accessibility evangelist by trade. (No, seriously. Itâ€™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 itâ€™s compelling enough to the constituencies we need to reach (itâ€™s not).
The chief antipattern I can cite is the â€œaccessibility mythsâ€ article. Search â€œaccessibility mythsâ€ on Google and youâ€™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 Iâ€™m not targeting any one of their lists in particular, except as symptoms of a greater problem. (Iâ€™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 demarcationâ€“your information is false, mine is trueâ€“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, Iâ€™ve put together the problems I find with the â€œaccessibility mythsâ€ 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 â€œmythsâ€ is productive.
So letâ€™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 donâ€™t know me, and obviously I donâ€™t know you, but Iâ€™m going to start talking about how wrong you are about what may or may not be a common issue.
Wow. No wonder weâ€™re so popular.
Itâ€™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 letâ€™s try not to belittle people who weâ€™re trying to rally to our side. Make sense? Good. I just donâ€™t understand why everybody says youâ€™re so dumb.
2. â€œMythâ€ articles are compelling and convincing.
Now that weâ€™ve irritated the people we most need to reach, itâ€™s time to move on to the banalities that set each specific accessibility expert off. Most myth posts begin with a no-brainer like â€œaccessibility is about creating a text-only siteâ€ or â€œaccessibility is all about blind people and screen readers.â€ These are generalizations at their most basic and uncontroversial. If you actually encounter someone in the wild who believes something like this, theyâ€™re not misinformed: theyâ€™re uninformed. Itâ€™s not a myth to someone who hasnâ€™t ever heard or believed it.
The second type of misstep is to claim something is a myth when itâ€™s actually something reasonable people can debate. One that I can think of that keeps recurring is the statement that accessibility work is â€œtime-consuming, expensive and very technicalâ€. That came from RNIBâ€™s myths article from 2009. Hereâ€™s the thing: quite often, accessibility work is time-consuming, expensive and very technical. Especially to someone who doesnâ€™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.
Itâ€™s not the best strategy to say to someone whoâ€™s suffering through accessibility remediation that theyâ€™re not experiencing what theyâ€™re experiencing. Or worse, to tell them that theyâ€™re only in the situation theyâ€™re in because they didnâ€™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. Itâ€™s good for people to be made aware of the problems that can arise. But for those staring those problems in the teeth, theyâ€™re looking for solutions. What theyâ€™re getting is: â€œI told you this would happen.â€
3. â€œMythsâ€ are actually the reason accessibility isnâ€™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. Itâ€™s a great way to vent our frustrations when we arenâ€™t enabled to change the outcome of a given siteâ€™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 isnâ€™t a myth. Itâ€™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 youâ€™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 theyâ€™re fooling themselves simply because they listened to the experts a dozen years ago.
4. â€œMythâ€ articles contain useful, actionable information.
Anybody who writes stuff like this knows that itâ€™s not going to be any good until you come up with five red herrings to rail against. (Three, if youâ€™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 whoâ€™s investing five minutes into learning about accessibility, I tend to think Iâ€™d rather hear â€œyou can use red and green if youâ€™re also using other means to differentiate those elementsâ€ than â€œMyth: Red and green cannot be used.â€ This is a learning opportunity, not Opposite Day.
And while Iâ€™m piling on, if you can be confident about what people should and shouldnâ€™t be doing for all content on the web, it should be easy enough to come up with some examples of what youâ€™re talking about. Right?
5. â€œMythâ€ articles reach the audience theyâ€™re intended for.
Wanna know how I find out about new accessibility myths articles? My friends in the accessibility community retweet them. Incessantly. Theyâ€™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 McSweeneyâ€™s Comic Sans piece. (Guilty.) Weâ€™re sharing the causes of our suffering. And thereâ€™s a place for that. But what is being practiced isnâ€™t advocacy, itâ€™s self-soothing.
Myths are â€œinside baseballâ€ articlesâ€“the kind of thing youâ€™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 youâ€™re proofreading that it sounds like youâ€™re venting about your day, itâ€™s entirely likely that youâ€™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.