When Accessibility is Not Your Problem

Joe Clark sketchJoe Clark’s talk at London’s @media was the most controversial today (Podcast). To add insult to injury, there was no time for comments or questions from the audience.

First he was giving an update on his workover of WCAG 1.0 under the label of “the WCAG samurai,” something he announced a year ago in his article at A List Apart, To Hell with WCAG 2.0. A few anonymous people he will not disclose finished their collective update, also there were two peer reviews of the final paper without the reviewers knowing about each other. Clark said he hasn’t read the reviews either, so this was kind of a premiere.

Then he talked almost an hour about a couple of things that shouldn’t be your concern (in his opinion) as a web developer:

  • Pixel units: per definition, pixels are relative units as required by the specifications. Blind people do not care anyway if text is resizable, zoom readers have their screen magnification software. But he misses the point when he concludes that therefore resizable text is not an accessibility issue because disabled users don’t have trouble with it. Accessibility doesn’t only affect severely disabled persons, it begins with elderly people who need to adjust the font size. And as long as IE6 is around on a considerable number of desktops, it is our problem to enable text resizing. We cannot just shrug our shoulders and put the blame on a certain browser vendor. Although we can get rid of those resize buttons on web pages. That is really a matter of browser vendors and user education. Patrick Lauke proposed to put such an explanation on the default page of newly installed browsers.
  • Link text being used out of context: Clark showed an example of a fictitious car sales page with recurring links to the car’s features. Of course the features link of one car is different than the features link of another, but you can clarify that ambiguity through a link title. A list of links on a page is a well known and appreciated feature of screen reader software, why should we cease to support that? But one thing I agree on is using an anchors type attribute to clarify that a linked document is a PDF. Though to my knowledge screen readers don’t make use of that attribute.
  • Abbreviations, acronyms, initialisms: We cannot cover all cases, and there are cases like “DVD” or e. coli where there is no written out meaning of an acronym, or an abbreviation that is so common that it is neither needed nor any help to give the full meaning. But I strongly disagree of dropping the whole concept of contextual help for abbreviations with the argument that cognitive disabled users won’t get it anyway.

Clark’s disputable (unfortunately not at the session because of a lack of time) arguments will certainly be addressed on the Royal National Institute of the Blind’s blog, so watch their space for a controversial debate. I will also try to get I got also a shot of a hilarious illustration of Joe Clark that Kristiaan Thivessen drew next to me. ;)

6 Responses to ‘When Accessibility is Not Your Problem’

  1. Martin Kliehm

    Right, IE6 and IE7 are broken, but it is our responsibility to enable resizing. Of course standardistas rarely use px units, but most indecent developers do. As long as IE is broken, they need to be educated about em units.

    In the discussion about link texts in Germany there is a consensus that they can differ as long as the title clarifies the link target. However, creative headlines might have a literary value, but they do not enhance readability or understandability for cognitive disabled users. I prefer headlines that do make some sense apart from adding visual structure.

    Sorry for any inaccuracies, but that’s how I and other people I have spoken to interpreted your talk. I couldn’t check your presentation first because it was (and still is) not online. Of course I will say hello tomorrow. Still the original scetch was from a guy, his female designer colleague made a copy of it. ;)

  2. Joe Clark

    When the notes are published, you will find that I never said pixel units causing unresizability is not a problem. I said that critics are constantly on our case about px units, that they pick on standardistas who occasionally use it, and that they don’t pick on the real offenders (the kind of people who also use 37 tables for layout). I explained that px is a relative unit and we may use any unit to size anything. IE6 and IE7 are broken. But the actual semantics of the pixel unit rarely come up for standards-compliant developers — maybe only in a copyright notice at the bottom of the page. They are scarcely ever used.

    The central point is that font resizing is a browser issue, not something that an “author� has to worry about. So don’t be ginning up your own JavaScript font-resizers. And I specifically stated that font resizing is not an issue of “classic� accessibility for people with a visual handicap (as opposed to someone, including a senior citizen, with a correctable vision loss).

    So bravo for accuracy there.

    You aren’t “ceas[ing] to supportâ€? lists of links by writing link text that actually works and makes sense in your document. You just can’t have both: Your link text either works in context or it doesn’t. Same for headlines. So let’s not pretend that a list of headings or links is any form of guidance on how to write link or headline text.

    And, finally, I specifically and unambiguously stated that HTML semantics should be followed. abbr and acronym should be used, but expansions should be limited to cases where a reasonable reader would misunderstand something — hence, no, you wouldn’t expand “E. coliâ€? on a public-health site.

    So again, bravo on the accuracy there.

    The artist who drew sketches of the various speakers is a buxom blonde woman. Une fois encore, bravo.

    You could have come and said hello. Tomorrow you still could.

  3. Tomas Caspers

    in Germany there is a consensus

    Just for the sake of accuracy, as this would include me: −1

  4. Martin Kliehm

    Tomas, could you elaborate a little? Does that mean that in your opinion all link texts pointing to the same URL have to be identical, or does that mean you think we don’t need to care?

  5. Paulio

    The whole issue of who is to blame or rather who should have the responsibility is a very tricky one. I have a lot of sympathy with the “blame the browser” stance but obviously you can’t simply say to a client, “tough luck it doesn’t work, if you want to use the site get a new browser”. Then again, the more you pander to the problem browser the longer they won’t fix the problems, like I said tricky. I mention this because I think it is relevant to your question about link texts. I believe the point made in the session was that you can derive the context from the hierarchy and therefore shouldn’t have to duplicate the text. Whereas I believe your argument is that this is nice in principle but the the readers don’t utilise the context? Again, who’s responsibility is it?

  6. wendy

    the more we coddle the browsers with hacks and workarounds the longer it will take them to get their asses into gear because we sweetly make them look good to the people who pay for the licenses etc – im not saying i don’t do it but i do see a good reason to refuse