It was a moment that is quickly becoming legendary in certain web design circles. The first of many accessibility panels at the 2004 SXSW Interactive conference was well underway when Jeffrey Veen stepped onto the stage just as it was his turn to present. Unexpected travel delays had prevented him from arriving on time for the Accessibility is For Everyone session. As a result, Veen missed the initial presentations by a panel of noted accessibility experts and appeared to walk into the room cold to deliver his portion of the session.
Against a backdrop of hyper sensitivity to accessibility issues Veen steps up and announces, “I don’t care about accessibility.” Veen’s proclamation was met with a few nervous chuckles followed by an uncomfortable moment of silence before he began to build his case.
Veen, of course, was exaggerating his position to make a point. After proclaiming he didn’t care about accessibility, he went on to explain what he does care about: professional web design practiced as a craft by skilled practitioners who understand the limits of the media as well as the opportunities presented by the media. He noted that in the past he always had problems working with print designers who felt constricted by the limitations of web technology — but those designers are no longer a problem for him because he no longer works with them. The designers Veen works with now are steeped in web standards and interactive design, and welcome the challenges of their chosen media. Because Veen is now fortunate enough to be working with skilled web craftsmen, accessibility is much easier to achieve.
He went on to demonstrate a few standards based sites that degrade gracefully and work well with assistive technologies. His presentation was a welcomed contrast to what might have turned into a prolonged debate on the proper implementation of access keys.
For me, this was one of the most memorable presentations at this year’s SXSW — others must have felt the same since a Google search on “Veen ‘I Don’t Care About Accessibility'” returns 316 hits (that’s about two results for every person in the room at the time Veen made his comment, but since he was also working the back channel via iChat there may have been some remote participants).
Matt May has another perspective on Veen’s now infamous assertion. In his post titled I Care About Accessibility, May is concerned that some designers may have taken Veen’s claim at face value, while missing the rest of his message. One can only imagine what sort of damage the ‘I Don’t Care About Accessibility’ meme might inflict on the efforts of accessibility advocates everywhere. I can already hear the phrase “But Veen said . . .” ringing through conference rooms across America.
I have to admit that there is a certain danger in taking Veen’s approach — especially in a world where so many decision makers are just now learning about the issue of accessibility. In many cases those same decision makers are also looking for an easy way out.
I was pondering all of this yesterday when I received the latest press release from UsableNet. The message was touting the latest succesfull implementation of the LIFT Text Transcoder. The County of Sacramento has just implemented LIFT on 40 county-run websites.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the LIFT Text Transcoder, it’s a product that will automatically create a text-only version of your entire website. According to UsableNet:
“LIFT Text Transcoder allows you to easily and quickly add the valuable “text-only” version to every page on your web site, providing the best possible access to your site for people with disabilities.”
“The best possible access” for people with disabilities? There are so many things wrong with this claim, I’m not sure where to start. Aside from the fact that this statement assumes that all disabled users are visually impaired, it also makes the false assumption that all web content is magically made more usable by simply removing images.
A quick review of the Sacramento County website should dispel anyone of this notion almost immediately. The home page’s HTML doesn’t validate, there are several accessibility problems on the entry page, and the cluttered design and seemingly random navigation is far from usable. Ah, but there’s that ‘text only’ link near the top of the page. If (and that’s a big if) this site’s disabled users make it that far they’re treated to a plain-text version of the home page that, while technically compliant with section 508 guidelines, does not in any way provide a better user experience. It’s certainly no easier to navigate, and extremely challenging to find anything useful (although we are informed that the site banner is a “Collage with basketball, ballet and river boats”).
The problem with products like the LIFT Text Transcoder is that they appeal to people who really don’t care about web accessibility. Decision makers who have just been informed that they have a problem they were not previously aware of are usually looking for the quickest possible solution. If that solution comes in the form of a piece of software that purports to provide “the best possible access” for people with disabilities, you can probably guess what decision will be made. Executives will buy LIFT thinking they’ve just bought a lifetime pass on the accessibility issue — problem solved. Meanwhile, the underlying structural problems that contribute to the most common accessibility and usability problems go unaddressed.
In UsableNet’s defense, they do make a variety of other tools that appear to be more substantial than the LIFT Text Transcoder, and elsewhere on their website they note:
“LIFT Text Transcoder is not a complete solution for providing an accessible website”
Despite the disclaimer, I think the damage has already been done. I doubt that many decision makers looking for a quick fix will make it this far. Even if they do, they’ve already been conditioned to think that accessibility is a problem that can be addressed with automated technology and minimal human intervention. Worse, these systems seem to reinforce the belief that web design is the end result of some commmoditized product, rather than the result of an ongoing effort to improve communications by crafting a quality user experience. The former is cheap and requires little thought. The latter is hard and requires organizational commitment.
In contrast to LIFT’s automated approach to accessibility, Veen’s position seems positively enlightened. The Veen approach places an emphasis on well architected information, good design, educated designers, and a commitment to standards. While these elements are not always guaranteed to produce accessible web content, they’ll usually get you pretty darn close. In most cases close enough to bring your site into compliance with a minimal amount of effort. The result will almost certainly be a better user experience for all of your users.