The access manifesto

AUTHOR’S NOTE – You’re reading the HTML version of a chapter from the book Building Accessible Websites (ISBN 0-7357-1150-X). Copyright © Joe Clark, 2002 (about the author). All rights reserved. ¶ Back to Contents

The true reason to design for accessibility is greed. Quite simply, I want it all, and so should you. Give us everything you’ve got. Give us everything there is to give.

Designers assume accessibility means a boring site, a myth borne out by oldschool accessibility advocates, whose hostility to visual appeal is barely suppressed. Neither camp has its head screwed on right. It’s not either–or; it’s both–and.

I want nothing less than spectacular graphic design, intelligent, well-tested usability, high-calibre writing with typography to match, top-flight photography and illustration, and resolute cleverness. I want standards compliance, with old, incompatible browsers left to die on the ice floes.

And while all this is happening, I want the highest practicable accessibility standards. I brook no compromises. Why should you?

I’ll tell you where all this comes from. I respond strongly to visual stimuli and to words, an unusual combination. If you’ve read Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1983), you’ll be familiar with the idea that the human brain fires on a number of different cylinders, as it were, which explains why kids who are good in gym class are often lousy in math. Now, in my case the faculties are asymmetrical: I can write but I can’t draw. Yet both words and pictures speak to me.

I go back over twenty years in accessibility, dating from a prophetic night at age 13 when I stumbled upon an open-captioned television program, The Captioned ABC News. Curiosity immediately took root about this newscast, with its heavily-edited visible words partially duplicating the news anchor’s delivery. One detail grew significant: Why did the W in the captioning typeface stand higher than the other lower-case letters, and why were the quotation marks two little dots? Posing those questions to the actual captioners led me to discover typography and graphic design, which I have obsessed over, written about, and practiced ever since.

I love good TV, good cinema, good graphic design. I have a modest understanding of photography, and am a published photographer. All these traits are inseparable. I cannot turn one faculty off while enjoying another. Accessible media, when very well done and when based on something worth looking at in the first place, will form a gestalt. Accessibility is value-adding.

I feel like I am missing out when I am forced to deal with inaccessible media. The communal sensory pleasures of watching films in first-run theatres are offset by the lack of beautiful captions and apt, well-delivered descriptions. I have been known to attend plays and subconsciously glance at the feet of the performers, expecting words to appear and disappointing myself when they don’t. (Yet I have dreamed in captioning only twice. You’d think that would happen more often.)

True enough, some of us have a hard time taking in such a breadth of information when expressed through so many simultaneous channels. Among nondisabled people, baby boomers predominate in this category; they are one generation too old to have grown up with television, with computers, with foreground and background stimuli intermingling and swapping place. They will never get accessible media, nor should they be expected to, until of course their sight and hearing start to erode. But this is how I look at it: I have high standards, and I know from direct, decades-long experience that beautiful visual artworks take on even greater appeal with the addition of expertly-created access features. You should have the same high standards and you should come to share that knowledge.

In this book, I refuse to advocate the unnecessary compromise of visual sophistication for accessibility. But I will not advocate the compromise of accessibility for visual sophistication, either. If you have to noticeably alter your layout to make it accessible, that’s what I’ll tell you to do. But if, as is nearly always the case, it is possible to provide accessibility with no visible alteration whatsover, I will tell you exactly how to do it. It simply is not the case that appearance is more important than accessibility. Nor is it less important. Neither is it a question of “balancing” the two, as if they were incompatible. Zero-sum arithmetic is irrelevant here.Yes, you can design a site with a higher or a lower calibre of graphic design, and the entire edifice of Web accessibility as we know it is built around incremental compliance levels.You have lots of leeway. But despite what you have heard, appearance need not come at the wholesale expense of access, or vice-versa.

An objection will now come to mind. Even if we offer up every accessibility technique in the book, the experience of a disabled Website visitor simply cannot be the same as that of a nondisabled visitor. Those who advance this objection do so with the implication that they are telling us something new; it’s supposed to be an airtight counterargument against going to all that trouble.

Well, newsflash, everyone: Blind people already know they’re missing out on the full visual richness of the world, just as the deaf know they will never share in the world’s wide-ranging auditory panoply. Telling us that people with sensory disabilities miss out on something is like complaining that vegetarians can’t eat meat. The limitations of disability are obviously built-in; are sometimes immutable but are, in any case, unlikely to change at any specific moment; are accepted by actual people with disabilities; and are barely worth talking about, let alone advancing as a justification for doing nothing. Why moon and gripe over what you cannot see or hear if accessible forms of representation are right there waiting to be used?

Equality is a misnomer. Equivalency is the goal. The only people who hold that disabled people’s experiences must be on an absolute par with those of nondisabled people are opponents of accessibility. The real audience for accessibility features simply uses them; if well-executed, such access features are barely noticed. I speak very much from lived experience here. What gets noticed, what gets in the way, is inaccessibility, or, I suppose, inept or illexecuted accessibility.

Nondisabled people view the media landscape and take it all in, and so do disabled people; the fact that the view and the media landscape might differ for each camp is neither here nor there. With access features, both camps are working at the top of their respective forms.

Besides,Web design is a form of multimedia. Adding access features brings truth to that word, or at least its first half. Just as even the crassest TV show becomes way more multi once you add captions and audio descriptions, even the crassest Websites turn into real multimedia with the rich textual and navigational redundancy this book teaches you to create. Accessibility puts the multi in media.

The only way to get what I want – which is everything at once: full-on design with full-on accessibility – is to teach you how to do the latter. I can’t teach you to be a better designer or programmer, but I can and will teach you top-notch accessibility skills. As for the other half of my goal: Once you’re finished with this book, it may be time to upgrade your design and programming skills to match your newfound mastery of accessibility. This book is all about raising the bar.

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