Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Accessibility Can Be More Than a Checklist

The metaphor of building a house with building a website seems to have no end. There are just too many great parallels. Here’s another one.

Imagine the architects designing your home. Imagine the construction process. Think about all of the details about how you interact with the home — the direction faucets turn, the way toilets flush, the placement of light switches, the direction of doors, the clasps on the windows. The home is built on hundreds of micro-UIs, each critical to the experience. Remarkably, all of them are standards. Architects do not need to guess where things are going to end up; there are specific plans, agreed upon codes, for all of these details, and their job is to construct a building that accommodates the human first, the aesthetic second.

In other words, while the light over your kitchen table is a matter of design, the switch itself, the gauge of the wire, the positive/negative/ground wiring schematic, the precisely regulated 110 volts, the meter calculating the current, and the power grid from which it all stems, are all axioms no architect, electrician, subcontractor or even homeowner question.

When a house is done, an architect does not stand on the front lawn and go down a checklist of these standards. They were part of the planning process from the beginning.

Wait, We Need Doors?

Accessibility is not a pre-launch checklist. The process of building a website, and then going back to install accessibility “features” is as ridiculous as building a house and then going back to add doors between rooms. Accessibility should be a philosophy adopted from the earliest planning process.

Unfortunately, the checklist mentality lingers. Legislature such as Section 508 promotes this way of thinking — “make sure you check this, this, this and this and boom your site is accessible”. Checklists are easy to reference. They’re quantifiable. Lints and validators can be written against them.

The reality is that accessibility is a mindset. Ideally, it’s a strategy. This is the brilliance of WCAG2.0 that many from the sidelines fail to grasp. It uses words like “perceivable” and “understandable” — abstractions that try to convey a foundational approach.

Doors, Even French Doors, Are Not Sexy

Since I have been involved in the accessibility community since 2003 (thank you, Mark Pilgrim), the topic has always languished somewhere between ECMAScript Specifications and right-wing evangelical podium-pounding. It has never gained real momentum with the broad base of web professionals — that is, nothing beyond that checklist of “alt tags” and “skip nav links”.

Accessibility is not sexy. It’s not fun, and it was never trendy. It’s not a jQuery plugin, it’s not “responsive”, it’s not new, it’s not something that impresses others or provides glitter in a portfolio. And worst of all, it can be “safely” ignored without any “real” consequences.

But our houses need doors. And electrical wiring that won’t cause fires. And plumbing that keeps poop and pasta water separate. Our houses are designed for people; there is no “blueprint validator” from the W3C.

I look forward to the day when we as a profession put humans before devices.

This post was inspired by the discussion on the article Accessibility – what is it good for?, where I initially laid out some of these thoughts. Also, as I was finishing this, I discovered the most agreeable article Web accessibility is a mindset not a checklist from Amajjika Kumara at Access iQ.

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Wednesday November 14, 2012

Thanks for the shout out Kevin.
A little more on checklists:

Depending on their purpose, checklists can guide the user through a series of evaluation steps or ensure a repeatable process through a procedure. A procedure list outlines a routine method to ensure that everything gets done and nothing is neglected or forgotten. However, the efficiency of a checklist is entirely reliant on in-depth understanding of the underlying environment.

An effective checklist should instill confidence that following each step will ensure a predetermined result. Every time you board an airplane, your safety depends on the pilots running through the checks and balances of a thorough list of items.

The critical success factor of this checklist is that the pilots understand the systems environment they are operating and the role of each component.

Complex systems often create interactions that were not intended by the system designers. One reason for a system failure in high-risk industries is the unpredictable interaction of several failed components. Web accessibility is no different – WCAG 2.0 is a complex system of interrelated guidelines, criteria and techniques that often have a direct impact on one another.

Moving away from a checklist approach to accessibility is vital. It may be more complex and challenging in the beginning but considering our ageing population, the long-term benefits will far outweigh any short-term growing pains from a organisation-wide (or even society wide) adoption of accessibility principles.

You will find that your organisation will experience continuous improvement that emerges from doing the work, but not from following checklists which can stifle innovation.

You may find yourself thinking “I only have to do this” instead of “how can I solve this problem so that it’s not a problem for anyone else in our organisation?”.

Web accessibility as a process is about the organisational adoption of a set of principles and values that result in systemic culture change, which can never be achieved through checklist thinking.

Matt Mehlhope

wrote the following on Thursday December 13, 2012

This is a great read and I wholly agree. As I said in my article on Responsible Web Design , it is frankly irresponsible for us as developers to neglect this monstrous audience on the web. Moreover, it is horrible business sense for companies to actively negate a group’s ability to obtain information or conduct a normal workflow on a site.

As an example, United Airlines has been harped on for years about their terrible site experience, both from an accessibility and mobile perspective. Unfortunately for them, persons with disabilities spend an average of $13billion per year on travel…most of which is probably not with United.