Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Sour grapes

If you think I’m carrying out some kind of vendetta toward the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Working Group, you are sadly mistaken. If you think that I critique WCAG 2 because I have a bone to pick or because something is simply wrong with me, you are about to be disappointed. If you think I’m just too crotchety and argumentative too much of the time, a temperament that has inevitably led to my trashing five years’ work by terribly, terribly committed people, that too will be a preconception you must discard.

First, a quasi-scientific comparison project

I’ve been telling the Working Group they’re wrong since 1999. If you check the mailing-list archives (more on that shortly), you’ll find that I’ve been unsparingly critical of the nonsense the Working Group proposed. (I documented it all in an old blog post.) They’ve done too much wrong and not enough right. Instead of giving them a pass for meaning well or trying hard or whatnot, I bring my actual knowledge and expertise to bear and I correct them.

The outside observer may be misled into thinking I am simply unpleasant and begrudging, that there’s something wrong with my personality. What there’s something wrong with is WCAG’s work, and I say so. You need to ask yourself why it’s more important to avoid voicing disagreement than it is to correct known and obvious errors.

In any event, we can do a quasi-scientific comparison between accessibility committees. On the one hand there’s WCAG Working Group – overrun by corporate and academic interests who have tons of time to waste on nonsensical proposals (thus far, five years spent developing WCAG 2). On the other hand there’s the PDF/Universal Accessibility Committee – less than a year old, populated mostly by experts, and focused on a topic, PDF accessibility, that is at once smaller and larger than Web content and that has much less of a foundation to work on. I was on the WCAG Working Group until they terminated my Invited Expert status (again, more on that shortly) and am still a member of PDF/UA.

If I’m really the problem, why are PDF/UA’s conference calls and mailing list carried out in a pleasant and intelligent manner? Why are the phone calls often fun and interesting? Why do we have such a good time during those calls? Why am I deemed so important to the Committee that it postponed a teleconference so I could make it home after business trip to participate? (That’s not all. It’s been proposed that the next meeting be held in Toronto. I have not been discouraged from believing that this is, in part, to make sure I can attend.)

If I’m really the problem, ask the chair of the PDF/UA Committee, Duff Johnson, about my actual performance on the committee. Remember, this is a quasi-scientific comparison. I’m the constant and the committee is the variable. WCAG is the scene of unending strife and disagreement, while PDF is a happy ship. If using me as the locus of comparison doesn’t seem strong enough, understand that there’s another person common to both committees. Maybe you should ask her how the two committees shape up.

If I were really the problem, I’d be a problem on PDF/UA, too. And I’m not.

Evidence from f2fs

I attended two face-to-face (“f2f”) meetings of the WCAG Working Group – a small one in Toronto in September 2003 and a full meeting in Boston in February 2005.

In the first meeting, I was the only one who did any homework, which I published in advance of the meeting. I also brought a pile of research papers. Ask anyone who was there: I was the best prepared, the funniest, the best-dressed person at the meeting. Also ask them if I was any trouble at all. (I wasn’t.)

Boston was a larger meeting, with much more dissension, little of it coming from me. (Who was that British guy sitting next to me who called into question pretty much everything that had been already agreed upon? A representative from a multinational corporation complain about him later, implying that anybody who questioned fundamental principles at such a late date would find himself removed from any group he chaired.)

Again, ask around. How well did I perform at that meeting?

How to be an Invited Expert

Everybody seems to get on my case whenever I point this out, but the W3C “process” is fundamentally elitist and stacked in favour of corporations. We are told that WCAG is actually much more open than other Working Groups, which typically have no public membership at all; everybody in those groups is there by invitation. (In fact, that’s how a shadowy WAI übercommittee works. Have you ever heard of Protocols and Formats? They actually run the show, and if they wanted you on their committee, you’d be there already.) Nonetheless, WAI is not open enough.

Yes, of course anyone may write to the two mailing lists, WAI Interest Group and WAI Guidelines. This says nothing about whether or not you will be listened to. The W3C process is stacked in favour of Members (capital M – mostly corporations and universities); its own staff; and so-called Invited Experts. There’s another category, with the ominous name “participants in good standing,” that refers to any contributor who does four hours of work per week on the committee. (I cannot find a definitive reference for that figure, and indeed it seems to change. The numbers, though occasionally pegged at four hours a week, tend to be higher for people the Working Group dislikes. Two hours a week are eaten up just by phone calls.)

When it comes to actual procedural matters like voting, nobody else counts except for those groups. To vote, you can buy your way in by membership, get a job with the W3C, or put in 208 hours of free work a year – or become an Invited Expert, which requires the Orwellian step of applying for it. In that case, the committee can reject your application, i.e., refuse to invite you. But WAI accepted my application for Invited Expert status in March 2005. (Curiously, I found a bug in the system by which one agrees to abide by the W3C’s patent policy, suggesting I was the first one to actually read what one is expected to agree to.)

I sat in on the endlessly dull and repetitive conference calls. We had to explain the same things to a committee cochair more than once. Another cochair sighed audibly when I pointed out that we had already covered those details. A speaking queue is, in principle, rigidly enforced, though one cochair talks whenever he wants and gets huffy if you pipe in with a phrase somebody was struggling to find (a real case – I said “unrequested popups” when somebody else was having trouble finding that term and elicited a groan from the cochair). The conference calls are a chore.

How not to be an Invited Expert

And then one day in August 2005, I received the following E-mail from WCAG Working Group cochairs Gregg Vanderheiden and John Slatin and a WAI staffmember:

Subject: Participation in WCAG Working Group and Maillist

Dear Joe,

When you subscribed to the WCAG WG mailing list, you agreed to the mailing-list use policy.... Although you have contributed important insights to the Working Group, your interactions on the mailing list have often fallen outside the bounds of animated debate on the topics. Your posts very often include personal attacks on members of the group, members of the list, or the working group as a whole.

We note that not all of your posts are of this nature. Pasted below are two recent examples that are on topic, argue strongly for specific points, and do not include personal attacks. [Redacted]

This note is written to formally ask if you are willing to honour the mailing-list use policy, by:

If you are willing to re-commit to the requirements for participation in the mailing list, we would very much like to have you continue as an Invited Expert in the working group. If you cannot make these commitments, then we will be rescinding the invitation to serve as an Invited Expert and withdrawing your privilege to post to the mailing list.

You should also know that, as we are approaching Last Call, we will be enforcing Good Standing more strictly for everyone to ensure consistent participation in discussions to help us move WCAG 2.0 through the W3C Recommendation track. This requires a commitment to attend at least two out of three teleconferences. To remain an Invited Expert, you will need to commit to attending at least two out of three teleconferences and to working collaboratively with others in developing proposals for consideration by the Working Group.

We value your knowledge and insight. We still would very much like to have your input and participation in the working group.

Please let us know by Wednesday, 31 August if you can make these commitments so we can know whether to include you in the breakout teams and assignments which we will be making on Thursday.

In essence, this message is a demand that I swear some kind of loyalty oath (I shall not say anything the cochairs dislike, or say it in a way they dislike) or I’d be ejected from the group. It was perhaps indicative of the level of forethought that went into this message that it didn’t occur to Slatin or Vanderheiden that I might simply ignore it, which I did. I also stopped posting to the mailing list and attending the conference calls. Neither of them noticed that, by doing so, I removed the stimulus they were complaining about.

I received two further nastygrams, including this one:

We are very sorry that you decided to not continue with the working group.

I had “decided” nothing of the sort. I had provided no response whatsoever.

We valued your input and hope that you will continue to provide input through the public comment process.

We will remove your name from the maillist and the invited expert list, and also from the registration for the upcoming face-to-face.

Looking forward to your comments on our next draft.

And then one day an automated message informed me that “Joe Clark has left the WCAG Working Group.” I had done no such thing. The message also stated that I had made “commitments” to review “the W3C Patent Policy, in particular the section on exclusion and resignation from a Working Group” and I had agreed “to all of the provisions of the W3C Patent Policy, including the commitment to comply with the requirements related to resignation from a Working Group.” I had not done those things, either.

The author of the system that produces those message may wish to revise the wording, since the message lied. I didn’t leave anything and I didn’t commit or agree to anything.

Check the record

Now here’s the fun part. I was the one accused of engaging in personal attacks, an accusation that is itself a personal attack. But I never actually did. You can check for yourself; I certainly have. I have reread every message I sent to the WAI-GL mailing list since becoming an Invited Expert. There are no personal attacks whatsoever. I’m sure you won’t believe me, but you can check for yourself. Tell me the names of the persons I allegedly attacked. Then fact-check your own arse and ask them if they felt that way.

I am not the only person whom the Working Group has attacked. It’s just that I wasn’t doing the attacking. I scathingly and unsparingly critiqued their lousy ideas, but that’s all I did. If they can’t handle criticism, then they don’t have a “working group”; they have a mutual admiration society. Accessibility guidelines that cannot satisfy informed but tough critics are worthless. And it doesn’t actually matter if you think I am, in fact, too crotchety or argumentative or whatever else. This isn’t an issue of personality.

Who’s the real problem?

Gregg Vanderheiden is the real problem. He’s had a storied career in rehabilitation and accessibility (I have seen research citations of his dating back to 1976), but he attained Peter Principle status in chairing, and later cochairing, the WCAG Working Group.

The cochair status is relatively recent. Because the job was expanding, itself an indication that WCAG 2 was snowballing out of control, John Slatin was added as cochair in 2005. (I am told that Vanderheiden did a bit of shopping around for a cochair.) That addition also insinuated that WAI had its doubts about Vanderheiden and wanted a backup in case he had to be removed.

But things didn’t work out that way. John Slatin took a long time off work for medical reasons. A WAI staffmember quit, and another staffmember was away on leave. During those periods, Vanderheiden had quasi-Napoleonic powers and was not afraid to use them.

This is, you will note, a discussion of job performance carried out largely in public on a topic with serious public-policy ramifications. And we’re talking about only this one job – WCAG Working Group cochair – and nothing else Vanderheiden does, or has done, or will do. Still, if you continue to doubt me, fact-check my arse again.

Here is an anecdote that may illuminate. Vanderheiden couldn’t make it to the Boston f2f in 2005. John Slatin nominally chaired the meeting, though, in practice, different sessions had different leaders. During a break, many of us sat around in the hotel lobby. I listened as other participants grumbled – unprompted – about Vanderheiden. I said I was surprised to hear such a clamouring for “nonviolent régime change.” The response was that nobody said anything about “nonviolent,” which got a laugh. Since no WAI staffmember was with us (and neither was Slatin), this seems to me like a pretty solid indication of the group’s true feelings about Vanderheiden.

It is apparently forbidden to criticize the Working Group, which, if true, gives it (really Vanderheiden) free reign to do whatever it (really he) wants. And as it turns out, that is a fair description of reality.

And here is another anecdote that may illuminate. In a conference-call discussion about bilingual documents and the need to declare the language used in different portions, I got in the speaking queue and explained that, in a country like Belgium, a document like a splash page might be in Flemish and French, with no predominant language (hence no language code to declare for the whole page). Vanderheiden immediately piped up – despite not being in the queue – and restated my example to describe Canada, where, he said, Web sites have to be in both languages by law. I interrupted him to tell him that was false and that there was no reason to restate my example. He got huffy for interrupting, so I hung up on him. You tell me: Was that a “personal attack”?

Note that I am not really complaining about John Slatin. I have very little to complain about. (Then again, he barely asserted any authority at all and acted more like an Invited Expert.) Nor have I ever heard anyone complain about the chairs of the Authoring Tools and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines Working Groups, one of whom I know personally. The problem is Vanderheiden.

Of course WAI director Judy Brewer would never actually remove Vanderheiden from the cochair position at this late stage. Among many other things, John Slatin would probably not be able to chair the group full-time at present, and Brewer has shown no evidence at all of tightening the reins on Vanderheiden beyond the addition of a cochair. So WAI will stay the course, and the Working Group will be stuck with Vanderheiden indefinitely.

There remains, of course, the option of resignation.

You are here: joeclark.orgCaptioning and media access
Web accessibilityWCAG → Sour grapes

Posted: 2006.06.01

See also: IRC log transcripts

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