Passive Accessibility

Posted December 16th, 2007 by Mike Cherim

Your visitors may not even notice and that’s sort of the point to it all.

A cornerstone of web usability is passivity. In other words, web interface elements should be found where expected and must work as expected. Accessibility, like usability, should also be passive. As said of usability, web interface elements should be found where expected and must work as expected, but I wish to offer this addendum: to everyone! People have said accessibility is essentially usability for the disabled. It’s an interesting perspective — one I won’t dispute. I know accessibility and usability are so closely joined, discerning one from the other is often difficult due to the sometimes indistinct boundaries. I, for one, happen to think they’re actually codependent in most instances.

What is Passive Accessibility?

To clarify what I mean by passive accessibility, here are two views:

It Just Works

As I’ve alluded to, I mean that all that’s possibly available on a given site should work for any person who can possibly use it, and in such a way that doesn’t require them to go to lengths to do so. After all, just as your typical graphical browser user has certain usability expectations from a site, people using assistive technologies or any browser feature that helps them have their own accessibility expectations. These expectations should be met, passively. Your visitors may not even notice and that’s sort of the point to it all. Everything works and is where it should be (basic usability), and everything that can be available is available (basic accessibility). Accessibility shouldn’t be a feature in the sense of being something that’s added to a site. It should be integral.

Without Fanfare

My second view pertains to a passivity in the form of the low-key advertisement of accessibility. A highly accessible and usable site will speak volumes silently. Those who need it will already know it. Badges really aren’t necessary. While they can inform the otherwise ignorant that such a thing as web accessibility exists, and this is a great thing, I’ve seen plenty of icons, from tacky to beautiful, on sites that don’t meet the levels they claim. That’s where the ignorant get confused. All is well if the site the icon is on is honest in its claim and kept that way, but I feel it should be displayed more passively. The icon should probably be shown once in connection with an accessibility statement. There its significance can be explained. And misinterpretations averted. And please, if you do claim that your site meets a particular level, make it so.

Could Be, Should Be

Nobody should have to talk about accessibility because everyone should already be there. The only resource that should be needed should be of the instructional variety, not the promotional sort. Accessibility should be so common that web users just take it for granted.

Now to shift gears a bit…

A Tip for Non-Profits

This bit is in response to a post by Joe Dolson on behalf of a meme started by Elizabeth Able. My tip for non-profits — just as this would apply to anyone with a web site — is to simply ensure your site is accessible to all your visitors. Just as you would naturally try to make it passively usable to your visitors, you should make sure it’s also passively accessible. And if making sure your site is accessible isn’t meritorious enough on its own — like a non-profit with a sense of civic responsibility — passive accessibility also applies to search engine indexing spiders. And this is just one benefit. Having an accessible, high quality site will offer many additional benefits to your organization that should help your non-profit succeed.

@Elizabeth Able: I’m sorry for not following the rules explicitly… but I am seeking three volunteers (hint, hint).

10 Responses to: “Passive Accessibility”

  1. Georg responds:
    Posted: December 16th, 2007 at 6:23 am

    I don’t often place “me too” comments on blog posts, but :-)

    I rarely ever do anything accessibility-wise but to replace what’s clearly inaccessible barriers with regular solutions. It’s easy, saves time, money and frustration, and just works.

    One of the first advices I received about “accessibility” - years ago, from what must be regarded as a challenged user-groups - blind people, was to not do anything for them. They didn’t want me to “change the landscape” on their behalf, as that would just make it more difficult for them to figure out what all the changes was all about. All they wanted me to do was to get rid of any obvious barriers, so they could get around on their own - using their own solutions.

    Consequently: that’s how I’ve worked ever since, and the response has been a simple and short one: “it works”. I have had to ask for responses though, as few care to respond to something that “just works”, without being asked.

  2. Tommy Olsson responds:
    Posted: December 17th, 2007 at 2:35 am

    Mike, it bet it won’t come as a surprise that I agree wholeheartedly with this. Accessibility should be a given in any reasonably modern website. We don’t need badges that say “This site isn’t inaccessible” any more than we need badges that say “I don’t molest children”. It should be something everyone could take for granted.

    @Georg: Your story backs up my personal definition: “Accessibility means that you don’t put up unnecessary barriers.” Thanks for that. :)

  3. Rob Mason responds:
    Posted: December 17th, 2007 at 7:32 am

    It Just Works…Without Fanfare

    - couldn’t have put it better myself. It’s incumbent on anyone calling themselves a professional to take this into account. Sadly there’s many out there who just aren’t :(

  4. Sarah Bourne responds:
    Posted: December 19th, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    People have said accessibility is essentially usability for the disabled.

    Wow, who are those people? Although there are synergies, accessibility is about making sure your code works well with other software (i.e., browsers, screen readers, etc.) whereas usability is about addressing the psychological issues of human-machine interaction. We’re trying at this point to move beyond technical compliance, into the area of usability for people using assistive technologies - which means you have to accept that they are two different topics. (BTW, you think browser wars are bad, you should see the conflicts between usability for people with low vision versus people with no vision!) The other reason this definition distresses me is because it implies that accessibility is sort of a special extra thing you might work on, as opposed to making sure the site works at all.

  5. Laura Whitehead responds:
    Posted: December 19th, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Spot on!
    Perfect article and agree totally!

  6. I Have a Crush On… | AbleReach responds:
    Posted: December 21st, 2007 at 3:21 am

    […] And, I stumbled into where Kim had Sphunn my Tips for Nonprotits Meme. Note to self: get Sphinn into my feed reader or go there more often. So far, the meme has been picked up by Kim Krause Berg, Joe Dolson and Mike Cherim. I’ll be writing more about supporting nonprofits. […]

  7. Anthony Brewitt responds:
    Posted: December 22nd, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    I mus say I completely agree with the “no fanfare” stance on accessibility and your again correct that the context doesn’t make any sense - I always hate seeing “valid XHTML”, Acccessibility WCAG AA” etc in footers, that space could be used a lot more wisely - a sitemap, back to top of page etc. Though I admit I have done it a few times.

  8. The Best of the Beast in 2007 - responds:
    Posted: December 23rd, 2007 at 5:00 am

    […] December: Passive Accessibility […]

  9. Hiding Content for Screen Reader Users - responds:
    Posted: January 7th, 2008 at 2:14 am

    […] I wrapped that text in an offset span. In my opinion that is a naturally flowing sentence that my logical mind cannot visualize as an impediment to anyone. In my stubborn mind I see that as an example of passive accessibility. In other words it exists to those who need it, and doesn’t exist to those who don’t. Perfect? Maybe the sighted screen reader user might notice this one, but I don’t think it’ll be too much of a bother. Maybe I’m wrong. […]

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