There is always debate about exactly what accessibility is and isn’t. This debate was recently rekindled with Joe Clark‘s thorough, well-written article: Facts and Opinions About PDF Accessibility. In that article, Joe states:
The goal of the accessibility advocate is to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, period.
Tommy Olsson disagrees with Joe’s stance on what the mandate of a web accessibility advocate is and suggest that it is much more than ensuring the web works for those with disabilities. I’m sure that many others agree with Tommy’s stance, and I completely understand his point of view.
I have tremendous respect for both Joe and Tommy. I’ll be honest, I used to side with Tommy. Then I changed the way that I looked at accessibility. So, then I sided with Joe. Then I changed the way that I looked at it again, and now (being openly Canadian) I side with both of them.
My Current Thinking
There are two types of accessibility: something being accessible to those with disabilities, and something being accessible to as broad a range of technologies/platforms/whatever as possible. Both fit with various “dictionary” definitions of what it means to be accessible. At its core, though, accessibility as it relates to people with disabilities is a human rights issue, and accessibility as it relates to other devices/technologies is not.
I’m fully aware that there is some grey area here. For example, people that use screen readers or refreshable braille displays are, in fact, using “other devices/technologies” to use the web. The devices that I’m talking about as “other” are more like mobile phones, handheld computers and internet refrigerators.
I’m currently thinking about these two as complementary concepts – accessibility (relates to people with disabilities, a human rights issue) and availability (relates to interoperability, alternate devices/platforms, a choice issue).
The Role of Web Standards
Web standards generally provides us the tools to work towards both goals, and I think that is why many people group both goals together.
Many people believe they are the same goal. The primary function of Web Accessibility techniques is to ensure that people with various disabilities are still able to use the web effectively. That doing so also provides extra support to other devices is simply an added bonus as it helps us more easily meet our goals for high availability.
For the record: I have always supported and will continue to support the development of both accessible and highly available web sites. The two concepts are compatible and complementary rather than contradictory, and we need to strive for both in web standards-based design.
Drawing the Line
Where, exactly, the line is drawn is difficult to say – especially when you hold both to be important and strive to achieve both.
For example: ensuring that the alt text on images exists and is appropriate is a human rights issue when it comes to visually impaired people. Ensuring that it exists and is appropriate for Handheld/PDA users is not, in my opinion, a human rights issue even though it is still a “choice” issue. But ensuring that alt text on images exists and is appropriate for visually impaired reasons generally has the added benefit of ensuring it “works” for alternative technologies as well.
I do not believe that I could win a discrimination case based on my inability to use a certain web site on my BlackBerry. If, however, I was visually impaired, I (theoretically) could win a discrimination case if that site was not accessible to me.
I know where I stand right now, and I know where many others stand on this issue. For those of you that aren’t sure where you stand, ask yourself the following question: do you think that there is a fundamental difference between accessibility as human rights and accessibility/availability as choice? I’m curious to hear what you think.