Math is hard. People with disabilities matter

Biologists worry that the accelerating rise in sea level and the threat that poses to high marsh habitat along the East Coast may cost us two endangered bird species that nest only in high marsh, the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni) — Patrick J. Lynch.

When I first started advocating for web accessibility in design and development projects I was drawn to the argument that accessibility wasn’t about people with disabilities, but rather about people, and that designing to meet the needs of people with disabilities would improve things for everyone.Part of this had to do with math.

As someone with at best a tenuous relationship with numbers, I found myself unable to make a convincing case for why it was important to build, for example, a course website that is accessible to someone who can’t see when no one enrolled in the course was blind. I never had a good reply for the inevitable question, “Just how many people with disabilities use our site, anyway?” I simply wasn’t able to add up numbers that were big enough to get notice.I tried other approaches — Google is blind, and making a site accessible to screen reader software also yields benefits for search engine optimization.

Then the mobile argument — the same “content first” approach that benefits people with visual impairments maps neatly to “mobile first” strategies, foregrounding what is essential and disclosing secondary content and functionality upon user request.In doing so I felt guilty of a small betrayal, as if I were trying to make accessibility for people with disabilities a secondary concern. And besides, I wasn’t that effective. At the end of the day, other priorities won out: the essential typeface, the nifty widget, the clamor for a place on the homepage.Recently Anne Gibson (@kirabug) posted an article, Reframing Accessibility for the Web, on A List Apart. She provides some great ideas for how to bring accessibility into the design and development process, through test cases and personas. She also makes a case for moving away from numbers toward an inclusive, “people are people” view of accessibility.

Anne is a self-professed “general troublemaker” and author of another interesting and provocative piece, An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues, on The Pastry Box.She begins the article with the following statement:We need to change the way we talk about accessibility. Most people are taught that “web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web” — the official definition from the W3C. This is wrong. Web accessibility means that people can use the web.Like all good writing it got me questioning my views (and did so for others, too, on the WebAIM mailing list and the W3C WAI interest group mailing list).

On the one hand I liked the math — “people” is a bigger number than “people with disabilities.” On the other hand, it felt to me as though something critical was lost in the reframing.And then I realized that somewhere along the way I had come around to a different viewpoint, that web accessibility must focus on people with disabilities, and on ensuring products are accessible and usable. We must give web accessibility deliberate attention or we won’t make progress, and we risk losing ground as new technologies emerge.

This notion of blurring the definition of web accessibility made me uneasy, but I couldn’t clearly say why. I asked my colleague and friend, David Sloan (@sloandr), to read my essay before posting and he spotted the gap and filled it perfectly:The only thing I might add is the human rights issue, and the awareness of the many years of campaigning for equality for people with disabilities that we need to be aware of as accessibility advocates.

To say “it’s not about people with disabilities, it’s about everyone” glosses over this struggle for equality.In some contexts a focus on the additional beneficiaries of accessibility can be important, but I guess taking that approach is similar to saying that racial equality isn’t about one specific racial group, or gender equality isn’t about one gender — it’s all about people. Well, yes, it is, but it’s much more than that. It’s about recognising that some people are discriminated against because of a specific characteristic, and a modern, mature society should recognise this is wrong and take steps to change attitude and environment to remove this discrimination as far as possible, not just providing more privilege for people who don’t experience this discrimination.

So in a sense I’ve come around to the idea of numbers, so long as they don’t have to be big to matter. Ensuring people with disabilities can participate must be reason enough to build accessible and usable products — whether for one person, one thousand, or one billion.