Is web accessibility inaccessible?

I gave the keynote presentation at the recent A11yLDN event, where I laid out the stall for what I believe is the future of web accessibility. I called my talk, "Does anyone know the way to Web Accessibility utopia?". I worried about being contentious, well, not really, when I asserted that accessibility utopia does not exist, that the WCAG is out of date and that accessibility is a subset of usability. I pontificated about inclusive design, about being reasonable and that no one creating a website has limitless resources.

Much to my surprise, instead of the expected AA, DDA and alt text rebuttals, it was like the room heaved a huge sigh of relief. There was an overwhelmingly positive response, particularly from mainstream tech folk who are desperate to engage but need something "real". The trouble is that accessibility is actually quite inaccessible.

Accessibility is subjective, immeasurable and unattainable, yet it's heralded as being absolute, determinable and easy to achieve if you follow the rules. Where are the rules? En route to Accessibility Utopia and that's where they belong. Of course, I want equality for all, but I am also aware that this is an ideal whether I like it or not.

Accessibility is about everyone participating in civil society, where access to information is essential. All people should be able to access, use and interact with online content, but the misconception that inalienable human rights are immutable in law makes folk think it's all or nothing. But human rights are where it all began and most importantly it's about human beings.

People are all unique, yet we all share the same human characteristics and abilities in a multitude of configurations, so understanding the range of human behaviours and abilities - in all of their complexity and unpredictability - is the way forward. Segmenting a person's needs based on a single disability without considering any other factors is absurd. When I registered blind and was assessed by Access to Work, they gave me JAWS. Of course, all blind people use JAWS. Right? Guess they didn't get the memo about the fact that 97% of folk who are registered blind have some residual vision? At this point I did not need a Screenreader, but even if I did, JAWS is incompatible with my ADHD brain and I nearly threw the computer out of the third story window.

Accessibility cannot be measured by technical conformance or policy compliance. It can only be measured by disabled people using websites as intended for their non-disabled peers. In practice, this means being able to complete specific tasks, such as registering with an online service, finding an organisation's contact information or commenting on a blog.

Léonie Watson did a lightening talk about AlphaGov and GovUK. Léonie is a long standing accessibility advocate and has the unenviable position of fighting the accessibility corner for GovUK. There was outrage when, after spending a reported £261k, AlphaGov launched a website that many folk found to be inaccessible and Léonie was brought in to put things right. However, the project has not adequately invested in research and I just don't think that randomly asking people to provide feedback on AlphaGov is an appropriate substitution. A project of this magnitude must integrate diversity into the thinking, starting with high quality quantitative and qualitative research, if they have any hope of getting this right. I really wish our industry would start thinking of websites as products that people interact with and approach design accordingly.

In stark contrast was the event the following day in the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, ironically titled "The Problem Comes First". The inspiring grown-up professional show demonstrated how proper product design is done - by clearly identifying problems and conducting extensive user centred research to find solutions, long before scoping or even dreaming of developing a prototype. It felt like a homecoming; I cannot count high enough to know how many times I have said that technical innovation and inclusive design are not mutually exclusive, but I don't need to tell the Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design Jeremy Myerson that. He's been named by Wired as one of Britain’s 100 most influential people in technology. Geeks take note.

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