Accessibility: Let’s put away the wrecking ball!

Levelling the playing field is a good thing

If you are reading this post you will probably think that accessibility is critically important.

You will know & understand the rationale behind it.

You will most likely either be in the accessibility “industry” or a user of Assistive Technology.

It is likely that you will be frustrated by the constant challenges that you face in accessing products and services or working with people to make their products and services accessible.

I know that in my job I face these challenges too on a daily basis.

Often it can feel that it is one step forwards and two steps back.  Just when you think that you have something that works, technology changes, legislation changes or management decide on a new direction and the baby gets thrown away with the bath water.

Baby thrown away with the bathwaterI work in a huge IT organisation and one of our major clients actually has adherence to their accessibility guidelines built into our contract so that any product or service we deliver to them must be accessible, not just websites anything that has a user interface.

So not only do I have the law on my side in my role I have the power to enforce compliance and if necessary stop multi million pound projects in their tracks if they cannot be used in conjunction with Assistive Technology.  I can almost hear some of you thinking he’s got it easy…

But despite making progress and working hard there is still much that concerns me about accessibility, both in my organisation and in the wider world.

So why does it still not work?

It is undoubtedly frustrating but I believe we need to take a step back and see how outsiders view accessibility.

Demolition in progress sign

I honestly believe that this picture represents how a lot of people in the IT industry view a meeting with the “accessibility guy”.  I’m not joking when I say project directors have run away from me with a fearful guilty glance over their shoulder.

In some cases they know that they’ve swept accessibility under the carpet or ignored it all together and that their project has a deadline they need to meet.  A meeting with the accessibility guy at this stage will delay their project upset the client (yes the same client that says they want everything accessible) and cost money.

Others are ignorant of their obligations so our first meeting can come as a nasty shock as the implications sink in for what implementing accessibility means for their project or service this late in the game.

Lets not turn accessibility discussions into a jousting match

Two Knoights Jousting

Karl Groves of Deque Systems posted on the need for a new approach to accessibility a subject first raised by Jared W Smith who talked of the need for a new accessibility game plan.  You can read Karl’s post on his blog.

I agree with most of what he said about how the accessibility community is viewed by web developers as whining zealots stopping them from implementing cool new ideas.

Accessibility has become a bit of a dirty word.

We are partly to blame.

We have felt the need to fight our corner and have fought tenaciously.

The problem is sometimes we shoot indiscriminately and do more harm than good.

We also frequently fight amongst ourselves.

We have developed a plethora of standards.

Whilst they are necessary there are possibly too many, they often conflict and sometimes they confuse the hell out of me let alone a lay person.

I have been working with and using Assistive Technology for over a decade and I know enough to know that there is always more to learn.  We need to have some sympathy for those who are willing to work with us and to provide them with practical ways and suggestions to work with these guidelines and just as importantly choose the appropriate ones.

Furthermore standards tend to lag behind technology developments so we spend far too much time in conferences arguing about the fine details whilst the world moves on.

We have launched class action lawsuits against major corporations and won.

Let me be clear that there is a place for legal action, it is sometime necessary as a weapon of last resort.

But class action lawsuits not only breed resentment they can also skew the view of what constitutes accessibility.  Large, well funded organisations such as the NFB can afford the lawyers more readily than other disability groups and this can lead to misconceptions, such as thinking that just because it works for one group or with one piece of Assistive Technology it is accessible.  Different people have different needs and they can and frequently do conflict.

We have bullied and cajoled people into accepting that people with disabilities should have access one website at a time.

But we can’t keep up with the volume of stuff that’s out there.

We cannot fix it all ourselves.

We need to find another way to achieve our goals

We need to stop fighting and start talking.

And not just amongst ourselves.

Stop telling people they are failing and talk to them about how we can work together to make better products for everyone.

Words like compliance, fail, class action, discrimination and legislation are turn-offs.

Talk in the language of business to the ones that own the big businesses

Go to the top and show the key people how they can make great products accessible and PROFITABLE.

Pile of Dallar bills

Demonstrate that the costs of doing this need not be excessive and can pay dividends in terms of usability, productivity, customer loyalty.

Present them with evidence that they can engage and delight their customers by working with us.

Graph showing how early implimentation of accessiblity pays off

Show them that they are missing out on an opportunity to engage with a large and growing customer base.

Give them facts and figures on the spending power and demographic trends around disability and ageing.

Credit card

This may not be easy but the pay off of engaging with top executives can be far greater as they can change the culture of their organisations.

Engage with thought leaders

As well as people from business we need to be engaging the people who are shaping our future, go outside of our cosy circle and get them interested in a two way conversation. The people who are building the next generation of technologies may not be aware of what they need to do to make their products accessible. We won’t know who they are but by engaging with thought leaders and getting their buy in we have a much better chance of influencing them.

We can also learn about what trends will be important and work with them to ensure inclusion.

Most people develop new technology with the intent of making our lives easier and better  so we should present the arguments that accessibility and Assistive Technology is just a natural extension of this.

We should not be afraid to appropriate new technologies to our needs.

Twitter is a great place for this kind of discussion.  It is a great back door to big corporations and busy people.

Accentuate the positive

We must demonstrate that accessible products can be great and fun products that everyone wants to use.

We need to be less “worthy” and more fun – make our products attractive to a wider audience, changing Accessible Twitter to “Easy Chirp” is one example of making an accessible product more attractive to a broad audience.

Before pointing out the bits that aren’t accessible on a website or in a product home in on the bits that are.

May your glass always be half full

Be prepared to compromise.

We are in this for the long haul and need to build relationships so being prepared to compromise on small issues is necessary.  If something is 80% accessible that is a great start so long as the remaining 20% doesn’t represent the core function of the product or website.

Sometimes we behave like accessibility is a religion, if that is the case I think we need to careful not to behave like the Spanish Inquisition.

Work to educate.

As Karl Groves mentioned people don’t often set out to deliberately make their products inaccessible it usually comes about through ignorance.

I am not a coder but I will and do provide code examples to those that do – my thanks as always go to those who generously provide this people like Yahoo Access and Dennis Lembree.

I also make sure that I bend over backwards to provide training and awareness sessions to all that ask for it.

We could do with making people more aware that they don’t have to comb through their code line by line, so lets give people the tools they need to build accessible products and websites, a lot of them are out there already.

Show them Assistive Technology – blow them away with how great it is. Most people I demonstrate to are amazed when they see products like JAWS and Dragon for the first time.  Demonstrate how some of it could make their lives easier too. Get them using it and you’ll have a convert to the cause. Even better they’ll have the awareness and the tools to implement accessibility themselves in future.

We also need to harmonise and cross reference standards as well as make them decipherable  – My colleague Klaus-Peter Wegge talked with me about creating a “cook book” with easy to follow recipes and tips.

Noticeably despite having input to many of the world standards on accessibility he tends not to use the word often preferring the terms Universal Design and Design for All.

Let’s embrace the wider world:

People embracing with a "free hugs" sign


22 thoughts on “Accessibility: Let’s put away the wrecking ball!

  1. I couldn’t agree more. When we held that conversation at csun for the accessibility game plan last year, I was skeptical, but then afterward realized how much things and approach needed to be changed. Since then, I’ve tried to modify quite a few things in the way I present accessibility on a daily basis to clients and friends and the more I think about it, the more I see the need to do so. This post helps me grow in this process, so thank you for it.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for the comments. I really hope we can all shift mindsets and enthuse people to design systems that are flexible enough to work for the diverse range of differing needs and requirements out there.

      Keep up the good work I enjoy your posts and slidedecks.


  2. When I read that Netflix was being sued because of lack of closed captioning on some films the thought that accessibility issues were becoming like the Mesothelioma ads on TV – low hanging money fruit for lawyers. Adversarial approaches don’t work, cooperative advocacy and reasonableness is needed.

  3. The ‘movement’ needs some kind of authority, but that authority needs to be flexible and understanding of both sides of the issue. I’ve just become a volunteer for where a volunteer accepts reports of accessibility issues from an individual and along with that individual compose diplomatic requests for fixing the problem. That’s better than just one person approaching a web designer, but it’s still a very minimal approach. If there were a legal code enforcement agency that could take such issues, then all the better. But since we’re dealing with the WORLD wide web, that agency should be an international one. That’s an accessibility problem of it’s own right there!

    • I like this…a bit like the old “don’t bring me complaints, bring me solutions” approach. You get more people listen to your helpful suggestions than you do your moaning complaint. Approach is everything.

  4. Great post, we have to be willing to look realistically at this from a business perspective. I think the harmonized standards as proposed by the G3ict show a lot of promise; why not focus our message around that (

    I also believe that the business value is the key, the audience of potential customers and employees is too large to ignore especially from a commercial perspective: one in five households, one in five households… But I also feel that is somehow part of the problem; it is SO big and allegedly wields so much discretionary spending power (pick your number; $220B or more) that it seems unreal. But if we are all sharing the same foundational facts and numbers, the message will resonate.

    Raising public awareness is key. They are very aware of relatively new product issues like green, organic and fair trade products. While green and organic purchasing may be more self serving, fair trade product awareness is a very interesting trend and one we should be looking at. But those products are stamped with the Fair Trade symbol, very easy to recognize who is and isn’t and purchase accordingly. Where is our ‘Accessible and Inclusive’ stamp?

    • Thanks for your comments Bob, yes the numbers seem incomprehensibly huge until you look at the data like the latest WHO report and realise that we are talking of an audience of a Billion or so people.

  5. The reason that it is so hard to get anyone who isn’t already converted to focus on accessibility issues is that it works counter to basic brain wiring. In a world that has constant competition for resources, the oxytocin our brains create (the ‘love’ hormone’) also acts to make it really easy for us to mentally identify with some people, and be ready to thow the people outside of our ‘in group’ under a bus. ( ) Under periods of really high stress, this has horrible consequences, in day to day life, it means that it feels very logical for people rationalize creating things in ways that work just fine for everyone they identify with, while totally ignoring everyone else. As your great article points out–that behavior doesn’t fit logic–there are more profits if you reach a wider group of people, and costs to reach everyone don’t really matter when the goal of reaching them is built into the creation process from the beginning. In many cases, just pointing out how our brain tricks is enough for people to learn ways to undo its effect. It, at least, of defusing a lot of defensiveness on the topic.

  6. Great post. Good to see consensus forming around inclusive design and using business thinking as a motivator for inclusion rather than risk aversion to laws or slavish adherence to technical standards which sometimes struggle to keep up with changes in website production (e.g. use of WordPress rather than HTML) or device (I’m typing this comment on an iPad…)

    Some of us here in the UK have been thinking along these lines for years and have put our experience into a new standard which advocates everything you’re talking about – BS8878. It gives a roadmap for embedding inclusion within an organisation, all the way through from high-level business cases through enabling policies to a process for identifying which decisions made in the production of web products most effect whether the product includes or excludes certain audiences.

    It’s a pragmatic standard for those who know nothing about accessibility and want a map so they can plan their journey.

    Check out my slides @ to get a look at the standard.

    I’d love to hear what you think of it.


    • Thanks Jonathan,

      I know about the work that you have been putting into BS8878 through friends and colleagues like EA Draffen and Klaus. I liked the slide share presentation, it would be good to have a chat.


  7. Hi Neil, great post thanks. I regularly find that stakeholders will require the whole facts and possibly the business benefits as well as the fact of making their product inclusive also. I have been working with many organisations over the last decade and by embedding accessibility right at the start of a project is definitely more cost effective and certainly saves a tremendous amount of time. The BS8878 is an extremely good way to embed this for organisations as Jonathan mentioned and keeps accessibility in the mindset of organisations post development. Something we are undergoing ourselves at the moment (Practise what you preach I say).

    I think that Karl too raised some very important points we should be thinking about and reaching wider audiences instead of just debating amongst ourselves. This is something I and my colleagues have being trying to do for quite some time. It really is about raising that awareness as you say. We actually have individuals within the organisation with various access issues that use Assistive Technology (AT) on a daily basis and once organisations see how their site is affected/or not affected by AT then it certainly motivates an individual more.

    Many thanks again for your post.


    • Thanks for your comments, I will be catching up with Jonathan to chat more about BS8878 in a couple of weeks.

      We must build a solid business case in order for universal design and accessibility to be fully accepted. I’ll write more in my next post.

  8. Any thoughts on the role sponsers to w3c such as Microsoft and SAP in the development of assistive technologys? Could this be a barrier with regards to guidlines set? Frankly could big organisations delay the introduction of new innovative products if their stamp is not on it?

    • Certainly the companies that produce the technology platforms that we all work on have a huge influence on the development and deployment of assistive technologies.

      They all employ accessibility professionals but my experience is that their voices can be drowned out sometimes which can result in new products coming to market that are less accessible than the products that they are replacing. A prime example of this was WindowsPhone7 which was completely inaccessible at launch, contrast this with the flexibility of Windows mobile 6.5 and the array of AT available for it and we can see a real step backwards. I have been in dialogue with Microsoft about this and there are some accessibility features being implimented for the WindowsPhone7 Mango update. I will blog about them in detail when I have the green light from MS.

      Apple have been applauded for the accessibility features that they have included in OSX and iOS which go beyond what is on offer from other manufacturers, yet there is still much that I would like them to do and their focus is very much on supporting users with Visual Impairments which whilst admirable fails to consider how people with other disabilities might want to interact with the technology in different ways.

      Big organisations should be encouraging innovation in assistive technology by publishing APIs that allow developers to do great things, often this is not happening and it is a cause of delay. I think that it is not always necessary for AT to have stamp of approval to from the big guys it is far more important thaty it works. The downside is that if the AT developers don’t work hand in hand with the big guys they run the risk of developing for a dying platform.

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  12. Very good post (as per) and a clarion call for us all to think about our approach and how our passion might be perceived by others.

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