That Evil Accessibility Word

Posted October 1st, 2007 by Mike Cherim

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

From the whole let’s camp and be friends attempt to suffering the accusation of fundamental failure, the meaning of web accessibility has been discussed and argued about for quite some time. To bring you up to speed: One “Camp” (Camp 1) feels web accessibility is best served by broadening the meaning to include access to all: the disabled, those with a slow connection, no JavaScript support, no image support, no CSS support, keyboard users, people whose eyes are getting older, everyone and everything, it doesn’t matter, both man and machine. Whereas the other “Camp” (Camp 2), feels the meaning should include support for the disabled, and as access to other users is concerned, this should fall under a different heading like universality.

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.

19 Responses to: “That Evil Accessibility Word”

  1. Tommy Olsson responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Not getting to write the book was disappointing, but their reasons for declining really added insult to injury. Especially since they essentially declined their own proposal.

    As usual, it’s All ‘Bout the Money, just like in Meja’s song.

  2. JackP responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 4:45 am

    Not that it will be much consolation to yourselves Mike, but I’ve found accessibility is becoming more ‘centre-ground’ in the UK at least. In the last few months, as part of the day job, I’ve been approached by a number of people wanting accessibility-related advice on how to improve their sites.

    I think the war is slowly being won: but that doesn’t mean there won’t be setbacks and pockets of resistance.

  3. Dave Woods responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 5:05 am

    Sorry to hear about the book. I completely sympathise with this scenario and have had the same argument with clients in the past. It does seem to be a topic that only interests people once they already have at least a basic understanding of accessibility and want to learn more rather than a topic that can be sold for someone to buy into the idea.

    We as designers obviously have a duty to deliver accessible sites but at the same time are presumably being paid by the client to deliver what they want and sadly talking to them directly about accessibility probably won’t hit the mark. However, explaining about how a certain percentage of users won’t be able to access the site if it’s optimised for 1024 resolution, how using JavaScript for critical functionality will exclude a good proportion of users both on the web and on mobile devices or how the site will not be indexed correctly by search engines if a flash menu is used may be a better approach than simply using the word accessibility.

    Yes it’s a key part of web design, yes it’s an important requirement to satisfy and yes we feel we have a moral obligation to ensure that all users can access a website but from my own experience and obviously from yours with the book, I do feel that it’s maybe time to actually address the individual issues rather than use the word accessibility.

  4. David Zemens responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 6:19 am

    My little corner of the web design business is much smaller than yours, Tommy’s or JackP’s … but I do meet with resistance to accessiblity concerns. The situations I have found myself confronting are much more passive than what you describe. Most of my clients are simply indifferent to the issue. Talk of accessibility falls on deaf ears (no pun intended). Most of them just don’t care.

    I am still hopeful that much of this indifference is due to lack of education. We all know that educating people and changing their mindset is a long and laborious process.

    Patience, Grasshopper. Keep up the good work.

  5. Elliott Cross responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 6:21 am

    Mike and Tommy,

    Keep your heads up! It really is their loss at not having this book and I’m sure that you can, and will find the right publisher for this book. There are plenty of books out there that have that darn dreaded “A” word in the title, description or other places in the book. I know, I own several of them.

    I think you said it rightly so that if we keep working on the accessible to all issues, disabled and spiders, etc. that more and more designers, users, business owners, etc will eventually realize the benefits of “accessible” coding. Not only for the benefits of “the few disabled users” that might visit a site, but for the improved usability, lowered bandwidth, portability and numerous other benefits that it will offer.

    Just let me know when your book is ready, I’d love to have a copy!

  6. Dan Schulz responds:
    Posted: October 1st, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Who in the bloody blue hell do these so called “experts” think they are? Where did they get their “omnipotent knowledge and experience in all things Web-related” from, a box of Cracker Jacks? To tell not only you but Tommy (both of whom I respect very much mnd you) to bugger off and to flip the world the bird (to “[bleep] off” in other words) is also a cardinal sin.

    While it’s sad that we have to bundle accessibility with “other services” such as “SEO” (don’t get me started on that particular Pandora’x Box, please) just so we can work the way we want, I’m afraid that it’s going to be the only real possible day-to-day approach for the foreseeable future (and by day to day, I don’t mean speaking at conferences or evangelizing, I mean making the sales that pay the bills and keep roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our stomachs). As I told someone not too long ago, we should leave the technical details (like accessibilitly) out of the picture when drafting our proposals and meeting with clients if we ever want to stand a chance of actually being able to include them (at no additional cost) due to the lack of acceptance of the “A” word, and save the preaching for a choir that’s ready to at least give us the opportunity to evangelize to them. *shrugs*

    One thing that did come to me while writing this though is the idea that the clients may think that the code is accessible (meaning they think it can be copied and used elsewhere) rather than the Web site itself (as in customers have access to the manager’s office rather than the front door for example) and that this may be one of the reasons why they’re scared of accessibility in general. But who knows… afterall, I’m but a pawn in the grand scheme of things, what can I do to make a difference? ;)

  7. Duncan | Syrup&Tang responds:
    Posted: October 2nd, 2007 at 12:32 am

    Viewing this from the other side - that of the client - I’ve had three discussions with different web designers in the past year who had quite clearly been trained not to give a damn about accessibility issues. This contempt for what should be fundamental principles seems to be instilled during their education. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with a business that showed me a beta of their online commerce site and they didn’t give a damn about the fact that it was unscalable, had small fonts for a customer base that is older and not highly internet savvy, prioritised the owner’s aesthetic preferences over readability/usability (for the same customer base)…

  8. Rich Pedley responds:
    Posted: October 2nd, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Should have called it ‘Section 508 and why it affects you’ but that would have made it a US only book. You could still write and publish via, would be interesting if it actually took off.

  9. Stevie D responds:
    Posted: October 2nd, 2007 at 8:38 am

    Maybe the trick is to talk about accessibility without using the word itself. Words like “best practice” go down well.

    And I would stress the wider benefits - not only does it help disabled people, it also helps able-bodied people using mobile phones, using office computers where Javascript is turned off and they can’t install plug-ins, people who prefer to use the keyboard because they find it quicker, and of course, search engines.

    OK, maybe those on an ideological crusade might consider this to be a cop-out, but in practical terms, it is much more effective at getting accessible practice onto the web. And that’s the way I would prefer it. Don’t make people think that they have to do something extra, just for disabled people - because that singles them out as different. If you can sell all the bits that make up accessibility as just “the right way to do things”, it will become automatic, rather than an optional add-on that can be removed.

  10. John Faulds responds:
    Posted: October 2nd, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    Hmm, I thought I replied to this thread just after Tommy did but my comment seems to have gone AWOL.

    second I want to make them aware, to let them know it’s good to do this, that they are getting quality and attention to detail that is well above and beyond the norm for the web development industry as a whole.

    Maybe I don’t do enough to promote the type of services I offer, but I don’t even bother doing this. I just incorporate into the work I do as much as I know about accessibility best practices because it’s just the way I work. It’s like someone who does tables layouts knows how to use spacer gifs; it just becomes part of the process - I’m not actually going out of my way to add these features most of the time.

    So for me, most of the time, the topic never comes up: the client gets a (hopefully fairly) accessible site whether they request it or not.

  11. Christophe Strobbe responds:
    Posted: October 19th, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Hi Mike,
    I read this post a few days ago but didn’t comment. However, I’m coming back to point to a somewhat similar case that is mentioned on the blog of “Pragmatic Programmer” Dave Thomas: They want to retitle a book that is currently being prepared. The current title is “The Accessible Web-—Creating Content for Everyone”, but they’re looking for alternatives because it seems that some people don’t seem to understand what that book title is about.

  12. ThePickards » Blog Archive » Accessibility: Making it all worthwhile responds:
    Posted: October 19th, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    […] That’s not what I feel, but it’s what I sometimes think other people feel. I don’t think I’m the only one to experience this: my old mate The Green Beast has described how the word ‘accessibility’ killed a book deal, and how he was discouraged from using the word ‘accessibility’ in a CSS tutorial, even when it was plainly appropriate to the point. […]

  13. Alex responds:
    Posted: October 22nd, 2007 at 4:54 am

    One thing that did come to me while writing this though is the idea that the clients may think that the code is accessible (meaning they think it can be copied and used elsewhere) rather than the Web site itself (as in customers have access to the manager’s office rather than the front door for example) and that this may be one of the reasons why they’re scared of accessibility in general. But who knows… afterall, I’m but a pawn in the grand scheme of things, what can I do to make a difference?

  14. bruce responds:
    Posted: October 22nd, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    As someone who’s been involved with two accessibility books, I can certainly confirm that “accessibility” is the kiss of death for sales, whereas 12 months ago, “Web Standards”, CSS or Ajax in the title meant it would fly off the shelves.

    I hope no-one is questioning my commitment to accessibility; I’m just reporting the economics as I see them. Publishers are there to make money - whatever else they might tell you.

  15. Dave responds:
    Posted: October 26th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I agree with you mostly, but one thing stuck out. Your use of the word accessibility is being limited because of marketing concerns, and that is frustrating to you. However, you then suggest that Camp One is possibly better because it’s easier to market one word.

    It seems that having a word or phrase to describe the different situations would work best. There are multiple concepts here, and limiting to one word will just further confusion. Using “accessibility” for the situation of both blind users and users who don’t know how to change their monitor resolution seems to trivialize the actual access problem experienced by a blind user.

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