web standards and accessibility

WSP and WSG logosI’ve recently dipped my virtual toes into the waters surrounding web standards and accessibility.

This has involved absorbing current and past opinions offered by members of the Web Standards Project and participating in the mail list maintained by the Web Standards Group.

WSP provides lot of food for thought about the big picture – why do we need standards at all, how do we develop them, how do we implement them – while WSG is a goldmine of active discussion relating to specific websites and how people are trying to make them standards-compliant and accessible.

What I find surprising is the lack of emphasis on universal access.

I recently made these comments in a discussion on the WSG list:

While people with specific access needs understandably tend to think only in terms of their own specific needs (that’s based on 10 years working in disability services, BTW), people with less specific access needs (most of us) still tend to think in terms of specific disabilities, impairments and handicaps and how to address them.

I feel there’s a lot of room to think more about universal access.

A physical example might be providing ramp access to buildings – it benefits anyone who can’t handle steps: parents with strollers, older people, young kids, pregnant women, people with temporary physical impairments, as well as people in wheelchairs.

We’re talking about a group of users then who – while they may not identify as such – have access needs that can be met through a policy of providing universal access. They may well not be the minority.

I believe we can achieve greater (and faster) acceptance of the idea of accessibility by focusing on universal access rather than disability access.

A direct example of this might be thinking about screen readers as not just being for visually impaired people but for anyone who can’t read well, including people who find it easier to hear English rather than read it.

Broadening our access definitions may well affect how standards are developed, which ones are supported by people like us and how we code for them.

I was further struck by another thread of discussion that focused on how tags must be meaningful to machines but not necessarily to human beings.

That set me to thinking (oh-oh).

Developers and designers write the code that enables and directs machines to be intelligible to each other in a standardised way, a situation where reference to real world communication between humans can actually be a detriment.

We do this to meet the needs of humans who have as wide a range of ways of accessing the content as there are individuals and who don’t want to know anything about the machine-talk going on.

Standards development and compliance is about empathising with the machines so they can deal with the humans.

Accessibility and usability is about empathising with the humans so they can deal with the machines.

When I worked with Deaf people, I was asked more than once by hearing people why sign language wasn’t the same all over the world. There’s no reason why sign language should be standardised, any more than spoken language should be standardised.

Yes, it would possibly make it easier for Deaf people to communicate internationally, just as international verbal communication would be easier if we all spoke Esperanto.

And yet people who seriously asked if it weren’t possible to teach all deaf people to use the same sign language would never consider giving up their native spoken language in favour of an artificially created spoken common language.

‘Web standards’ is about commonality, while ‘web accessibility’ is about individuality. We have to respect the needs of machines and the needs of humans as we try to devise a language that creates commonality while meeting the needs of individuality.

Without standards, the machines won’t deliver the content, the structure or the design in the way the content creator intended.

Without accessibility, the humans won’t receive the content, the structure or the design in the way the content creator intended.

The spanner in the works seems to be the software, the interface between the machines and the humans.

To continue the corollary of working with Deaf people, consider the role of the interpreter. Terps need to accept input from external sources and present it to the Deaf consumer in a way that conveys full meaning.

They need to focus on just one range of sensory input – sound – but not be limited to a single form of it – they need to pass on the information that a plane has suddenly passed low overhead to explain why everybody stopped talking and some people looked up at the sky.

Terps need to make rapid judgements about the best way to convey a piece of information, based on the needs of the Deaf person – or people – for whom they are interpreting.

When I was interpreting, the only way I could manage this was to be as clean a slate as possible, to be no more than a conduit for information. The speed required meant that I had no time to think about meaning – I just had to let myself accept the aural input and turn it into visual output in the quickest possible time, and trust myself to get it right.

To do this, the terp has to be fully fluent in sign language, which is a language that is both tightly controlled in allocating specific meaning to defined gestures and visual symbols and yet also not only affords room for expressive creativity but demands it in translating verbal concepts riddled with social and cultural nuance.

Try saying “Once in a blue moon” in sign language. To sign and spell out the words in that phrase is a meaningless exercise. There isn’t time to explain the concept of the second full month in a month being called blue because it happens very, very rarely. And there is no defined sign for “very, very rarely”.

The solution was to create a sign based on an extended repetition of the known signs for “nothing” followed by a sudden “happen” followed by more “nothing”. The decision to do this and the execution of it had to happen almost instantaneously.

I had several occasions where I finished an interpreting assignment with no more than a broad idea of what I’d just been saying. These occasions were generally also my most successful missions, according to feedback from Deaf people.

Maybe there’s a model in there for how browser software and access augmentation software should work.

It has to be based on stated, understood and agreed rules about how content should be displayed. But it also has to be flexible enough to offer appropriate solutions not catered to in a standardised approach.

And that’s why standards and accessibility are so intertwined, and always have been, even if the web community is no better at understanding the limitations of exploring accessibility through disability than anyone else.

Tim Berners Lee was right to say

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect

Unless we implement that universality of access, the web will fall short of acceptable standards.


4 thoughts on “web standards and accessibility”

  1. Well said. Universal access should be the goal, and I think it is good to emphasise that the more accessible a site is, the better it will be for everyone because of knock on effects with usability, search engine friendliness, and cross platform consistency.

    Having said that, universality can never be fully achieved. One persons easier to read high contrast text could be another persons migraine inducing text. Choice and education is vital. It is already possible for a savvy end user to change much of the way they access a web page through use of various tools, browser settings, cascading style sheets etc. PCs are heavily customised for users preferences for screen savers, screen resolution, wallpaper etc. If other aspects were as easy or obvious to change then there would be less need for web developers to try and cater for specifics.

    Written and signed language is an interesting case in point. I would also use art as an analogy. Not having any formal art training, if I look at a painting my experience is generally based on whether I like the colours, shapes, composition, etc. If I read a critique of the painting I can suddenly see a lot more which was previously inaccessible to me, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better experience. After all if the artist wanted everyone to fully understand their art they could include their own explanation.

    Even assuming that everyone had the means to read the text on a web page (whether written, spoken or signed), universality would imply that it should be available in all languages and for all levels of language ability.

    I believe in web standards, but I think that the real world will never fully accept any standard, after all it doesn’t happen with car fuel, which side of the road to drive on, currency, language, food labelling, safety et al.

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