Let’s get rid of “accessibility”
SXSW organizers gave me a wonderful opportunity this year – the chance to put together an entire day workshop of advanced accessibility techniques for SXSWi. Sessions to teach attendees specific skills that they could leave with and improve their practice. It was a daunting challenge to look through the many excellent accessibility panel submissions and choose among them for sessions that could share this common theme and yet stand alone for attendees who may not stay all day. I am a realist about the attention span of typical SXSWi attendees and anyway there is a HUGE amount of great stuff going on all the time! As I thought about it all in the months leading up to SXSWi, I realized an odd thing. If I could design the field of accessibility from scratch I would make a fundamental change to our vocabulary. I would get rid of the word “accessibility.” So I decided that this day would look to a future in which we don’t even talk about accessibility, but instead realize that as John Slatin always said, good design IS accessible design.” Here is what I mean.
No matter how much and how often people with disabilities advocate and model exemplary skills and intelligence, too often accessibility is associated with a need to “dumb down” content or function. You find this to be true in schools as they try to integrate technology in learning – just give “those kids a laptop and let me get on with my flashy, poppy curriculum products. It’s way easier than thinking about how various kids actually learn.” You find it the new dot gov sites where the alternative for a highly interactive citizen input application is a text only explanation that provides none of the function. And of course, you find it in the authoring tools and CMSs that provide “accessibility features” that must be discovered first of all, then turned on and understood in order to create anything close to “accessible” content. Yikes! No wonder there are so many barriers of use.
Well, I have a dream…and it is that as we get past these baby steps of learning to use new instruments of mass communication, we understand the importance and the value of inclusion. And the fact is that really talented and skilled designers already do. To get beyond “accessibility” as “accommodation” for a “disadvantaged” group of users to an understanding that great design like great literature, meets people where they are. And that would mean all people, wherever they are in the technology/ability spectrum.
Liam Magee is a colleague of mine serving on the Education and Outreach Working Group of the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C. We meet weekly for a two hour phone call and though I have never met him, I am always grateful for Liam’s contributions. He is a great designer with an organic understanding of the importance of what used to be called “accessibility” (before the current paradigm shift). Liam says that when he sees some of these barrier filled, specific browser or device dependent designs, he wonders, “Is that person evil or just really stupid?”
We can’t all be a brilliant as Liam and so we try to explain that there is also ignorance at work. People don’t know, don’t understand. Many still really believe that advanced communication technologies are only for the elite few and that it is OK to leave out entire segments of the population. Well, that attitude is changing as rapidly as the technology.
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