Christian Heilmann

The accessibility stalemate

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021 at 8:17 pm

Scrabble board spelling publish

Over the course of my career I’ve seen a lot of excellent accessibility presentations and learned a lot. That’s because I worked in the accessibility space and went to specialist conferences. Web development conferences also have accessibility talks and their number is rising. But often these don’t go past the 101 stage or repeat things that should be obvious. Alas, many of these things aren’t obvious to the average designer/developer. The reason could be a thing I’m calling the accessibility stalemate.

What do I mean by that? A lot of excellent accessibility advice never gets distributed beyond the initial audience. The reason is that people love to call out any accessibility problems with the materials. There is a knee-jerk reaction I’ve seen over and over again. Calling a slide deck explaining how to make content accessible that isn’t fully accessible as “ironic” or “a bad example”. A lot of presenters don’t share their talks because of that. I saw many conferences not release any of the materials or videos as they couldn’t caption them or host them on a platform that allows for it.

It is tough to make things accessible. I’d even go as far as saying that you can never make things accessible to everyone. All you can do is make sure that the materials you publish can be altered to the needs of your users. At the least, provide information that describes things that are visible only – like alternative text for images. We understand that and when it comes to products in the wild, we’re forgiving if things aren’t perfect.

We are not as lenient when it comes to information materials of accessibility events. If they aren’t perfectly accessible, they’re seen as a disgrace. And that’s holding us back.

Many presentations complain about the lack of basic accessibility in products. On the surface, it seems to be valid criticism to call out when they aren’t in an “accessible format”. Or when they fail to provide alternatives for each image and video in them. Except, it is a cheap shot and feels like a distraction from the problems the materials talked about. “You don’t follow your own rules, so why should I?” is a cop-out of those who don’t want to think about a certain matter.

It reminds me of this classic piece by Jeffrey Zeldman that calls out people criticising articles for the platform they are published on. “Isn’t it ironic that I can’t read your article on mobile best practices on my mobile device” and similar smart remarks. No, it isn’t ironic, and it is also not that important.

What do we gain by ensuring that a presentation about how people use screen readers is accessible by a screen reader? Is that the audience? The one who already knows this information? Who do we serve with this? Or – let’s turn it around – who do we miss out on when we spend a lot of effort on it? Unless the talk is about creating accessible presentations and you show with your talk materials how to do it, it seems extra effort not serving the right audience.

How about we stopped with this and instead concentrate on getting accessibility information to those who need it in a format engaging to them?

Here are a few accessibility truths/prejudices to tackle:

  • Accessibility is scary – the best selling point for accessibility hasn’t been “making it work for everybody will create better products” but “you will be sued if your product isn’t accessible”. We’ve played that card for years – it works. However, it doesn’t result in accessible products, it results in compliant products. But it cemented accessibility as something people don’t strive for, but something they worry about instead.
  • Accessibility is boring – by telling people they must do invisible things to be compliant we didn’t make accessibility a “wow, I want this”. We made it a chore, a task to do before you can release. Accessibility isn’t boring. Just look at how we use our mobile phones. Most of the features that make them cool (geolocation, voice recognition, read aloud…) were originally created for assistive technology. And yet we worry about not spicing up our accessibility presentations with multimedia as it isn’t accessible to all.
  • Accessibility is complex – currently I work on developer tooling, and I try hard to make accessibility testing and creation of accessible interfaces easy. It isn’t though. The whole idea of the accessibility tree as an alternative representation of the document is confusing a lot of people. And while we have highly visual and intuitive tools for performance testing and CSS creation, the accessibility focused ones tend to be basic and bland. Right now, most of them are used by testers instead of developers/designers. That’s not enough.

We have a lot to gain by making accessibility, well, more accessible. We do not do that by blocking information from going out as it isn’t perfect when it comes to accessibility. We do cater to various audiences, and you catch hearts and minds by using a format that appeals to these audiences. Not the lowest common denominator.

So next time you feel like calling out a great video or presentation for lack of “accessible format” or captions, maybe do something about it instead. Write about the video or the presentation and publish your musings in a perfect, accessible format. Good luck.

Learn more: More about my approach to accessibility and how I ensure that our products have an accessibility built in from the get-go, in my Skillshare class Product Management: Tools for Improving Product Accessibility.

Share on Mastodon (needs instance)

Share on Twitter

My other work: