Forgive me if I sound blue. I have been beaten up a twice in the span of seven days. Not physically, mind you, but my concerns about web accessibility were dismissed and it’s discouraging. The word accessibility, I have learned, simply does not sell very well and may be summarily rejected. Bring up the word and ears close with an audible snap. It’s distressing. You’re probably wondering what I mean by “beaten up” at this point so let me explain by backing up a bit and telling you about two situations.
The inaccessible accessibility book
I was approached by a major US publisher a short time ago and asked to write a book about the progressive enhancement side of web accessibility. I won’t reveal the proposed title, but the word accessibility was in it. The pay-off was going to be nice split among one, but being as busy as I have been, and wanting to produce the best book possible, I decided to ask my Swedish friend Tommy Olsson on board to co-author the project. Tommy was enthused by the opportunity and together we drafted the still-necessary proposal [read: red tape].
Time passes, big-wigs meet, the mind fires burn, and a decision is finally reached: “No,” they say. For marketing reasons we need to deemphasize the accessibility part of the message, we’re told. We’re instructed to focus on the progressive enhancement (the what), but not the accessibility (the why). They change the title and tell us we need to re-do the book’s description.
Tommy and I were a bit disappointed by this, and we rolled our eyes both literally and figuratively, but we remained optimistic. We did as instructed. Our thinking, since accessibility is such an integral part, was that it would be discussed in great detail regardless of the title and description. I mean, really, how do you write about the what without digging deeply into the why? It’s helpful, after all, for people to understand the rationale behind the decision making process that’s employed when making an accessible web site.
A month passed, another meeting of the corporate minds went into session, and the judge handed down the verdict: Guilty of talking about unsaleable accessibility which carries a sentence of no book deal for you. The person who initiated contact was slightly embarrassed by the thing. That individual wanted a book about progressive enhancement and accessibility — it was their idea. But the marketing experts declared in so many words: If you want to kill a book’s sales potential, put accessibility in the title. Tommy and I were both sorry to hear this.
But, wait, there’s more. I got it twice in one week, remember?
Don’t use the “A” word again!
I was recently asked to write ten questions about cascading style sheets (CSS) for an online IT testing company. They asked that I submit some sample questions to make sure I got their style right. It was a part of the necessary proposal [read: red tape].
In the first question I asked about the best way to perform a particular CSS layout task. I mention in the question that one of the objectives to the task is to maintain the highest level of both human and machine accessibility (meaning everything from assistive technologies to search engine spiders). I provide four possible responses, followed by rationale for each response explaining why it is a right or wrong answer (for the test-givers).
A day passes (they’re faster than book people) and I’m told that they think they’re good questions, but they warn not to repeat the word accessibility again. Seriously. This time I argue the point stating that I’ll try but it may come up again if it applies and that I’ll do what I have to do. After all, I explain, accessibility can play a role in some of the CSS decision making. I soften this blow by also explaining that other technologies creep into CSS decision making. Performance, content portability, usability, cross-browser stability, media types, and more. This was finally accepted, but then again the warning was also repeated.
Broadening the meaning
Based on my recent encounters, my thinking that the Camp One rationale is probably more fruitful in a business and acceptance sense is being cemented. It may be necessary and in the best interest of accessible web developers the world over to load the meaning of the word to include access to everyone, after all. If we want the word to be accepted and not rejected, then it should possess a value that corporate types can get behind.
I know this is a touchy subject, and I don’t want to open old wounds, but I’ve said this before: If the meaning is narrowed, so will be its acceptance and implementation. By widening the term Camp Two’s fear is that the meaning will be diluted to the point that the disabled will not be served. But Camp One’s first objective is support for the disabled so we see no harm. But, yes, the word will mean more and thus could be considered diluted if one lets it. But I ask, what’s better: Diluted a bit, or completely lost or rejected by the powers-that-be?
Reality check time
Is this familiar to you?
“I will make your site accessible,” the web developer says to the client.
The client replies, “What’s that? What do you mean by accessible?”
“Oh, it concerns things like making sure disabled users can access your content,” webby says.
“Ah, I see,” the client remarks. “That’s a good thing I suppose. Can I save money if we don’t concern ourselves with that? Maybe we can just make it for normal people?”
“No, it’s included in what I offer,” webby states. “Anyway, some of the same benefits provided to some disabled users will also help you be indexed by search engines.”
The client, now interested, says, “Cool. Let’s do it.”
The client didn’t get it and webby didn’t have to argue the point. Webby broadened the meaning to broaden its appeal and gain the client’s acceptance. It worked. The client is happy, and webby gets to make yet one more site on that web that is accessible — to all. Win-win.