The accessibility stalemate

Scrabble board spelling publish

Over the course of my career I’ve seen a lot of excellent accessibility presentations and learned a lot. That’s because I worked in the accessibility space and went to specialist conferences. Web development conferences also have accessibility talks and their number is rising. But often these don’t go past the 101 stage or repeat things that should be obvious. Alas, many of these things aren’t obvious to the average designer/developer. The reason could be a thing I’m calling the accessibility stalemate.

What do I mean by that?

A lot of excellent accessibility advice never gets distributed beyond the initial audience. The reason is that people love to call out any accessibility problems with the materials.

There is a knee-jerk reaction I’ve seen over and over again. Calling a slide deck explaining how to make content accessible that isn’t fully accessible as “ironic” or “a bad example”. A lot of presenters don’t share their talks because of that. I saw many conferences not release any of the materials or videos as they couldn’t caption them or host them on a platform that allows for it.

It is tough to make things accessible. I’d even go as far as saying that you can never make things accessible to everyone. All you can do is make sure that the materials you publish can be altered to the needs of your users. At the least, provide information that describes things that are visible only — like alternative text for images. We understand that and when it comes to products in the wild and we’re forgiving if things aren’t perfect.

We are not as lenient when it comes to information materials of accessibility events. If they aren’t perfectly accessible, they’re seen as a disgrace. And that’s holding us back.

Many presentations complain about the lack of basic accessibility in products. On the surface, it seems to be valid criticism to call out when they aren’t in an “accessible format”. Or when they fail to provide alternatives for each image and video in them. Except, it is a cheap shot and feels like a distraction from the problems the materials talked about. “You don’t follow your own rules, so why should I?” is a cop-out of those who don’t want to think about a certain matter.

It reminds me of this classic piece by Jeffrey Zeldman that calls out people criticising articles for the platform they are published on. “Isn’t it ironic that I can’t read your article on mobile best practices on my mobile device” and similar smart remarks. No, it isn’t ironic, and it is also not that important.

What do we gain by ensuring that a presentation about how people use screen readers is accessible by a screen reader? Is that the audience? The one who already knows this information? Who do we serve with this? Or — let’s turn it around — who do we miss out on when we spend a lot of effort on it? Unless the talk is about creating accessible presentations and you show with your talk materials how to do it, it seems extra effort not serving the right audience.

How about we stopped with this and instead concentrate on getting accessibility information to those who need it in a format engaging to them?

Here are a few accessibility truths/prejudices to tackle:

We have a lot to gain by making accessibility, well, more accessible. We do not do that by blocking information from going out as it isn’t perfect when it comes to accessibility. We do cater to various audiences, and you catch hearts and minds using a format that appeals to these audiences. Not the lowest common denominator.

So next time you feel like calling out a great video or presentation for lack of “accessible format” or captions, maybe do something about it instead. Write about the video or the presentation and publish your musings in a perfect, accessible format. Good luck.

Maker of web things. Ponderer of new technology. Lover of simplicity. Portfolio: http://christianheilmann.com