David Berlind on Web Accessibility

June 18, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Reviews, Web standards.

I would like to think of David Berlind, the executive editor of ZDNet, as an advocate for web accessibility. He skims the edges of advocating accessibility; giving mouth service to the principles of accessibility and giving some indications that he considers web accessibility of some importance. But, fundamentally, he doesn’t get it and he doesn’t support it.

I referenced an article of his in May, on the subject of the lawsuit against Target Corporation. I only mentioned the article briefly, but today I feel I need to cover it more thoroughly.

There are two main problems with this article, in my mind – the first is that it contains a highly misleading appraisal of web accessibility. After reading through this article, somebody with little understanding of the basics of web accessibility would be left with the impression that the biggest web accessibility problem is that the blind have trouble with links which don’t have alt tags. Now, anybody with a little knowledge will immediately know that this is not only misleading, but flat out wrong.

What David literally says is:

At a bare minimum, to make basic HTML-driven sites more accessible to PWDs, authors of Web content need to program an alternative text tag into their hyperlinks. For example, if you mouse over the link to ComputerWorld above, you should see how I’ve programmed the alternative text tag to say “Story about disabilities lawsuit between NFB and Target.” When Web authors do this, the text-to-voice screen reading software used by many PWDs puts those PWDs on a level-playing field with people whose sight isn’t impaired and who can intuit the purpose of the link based on what they see. In other words, people with impaired vision need to hear what people without such impairments normally see. By not religiously using the alternative text tag on all links, you’re basically leaving PWDs that rely on text-to-speech assistive technology in the dark.

He’s confused the issue of the alt attribute with that of the title attribute, and confused the importance of logical linking with that of alternative image texts.
David continues to mention that he’s made his article "more accessible" with the "with the links [he’s] included", conflating the unnecessary and lengthy title tags he’s added to links with truly necessary alternate texts on images.

In addition, he judges that the web is not technologically equipped to make compliance with accessibility possible, because of the limitations fo web user agents and the difficulties with accessibility in modern technologies (such as AJAX). But he misses the point here – first of all, it is not impossible to make Web 2.0 applications accessible. It merely requires that all programmers, not merely accessibility specialists, conform to certain guidelines which will enable these programs to function.

Unless society changes significantly, there will always be technologies available which are not "accessible" – does this mean we should therefore never require accessibility? Does not being ready therefore exonerate our responsibilities? I can’t accept that – instead, we should require accessibility and expect that technologies will not be accepted for mainstream use until an accessible use paradigm has been developed.

Finally, David bluntly states:

But I can’t advocate stretching the American Disabilities Act to cover Web sites. Given the state of the state of technology (tools, Web 2.0), the Web, technologically speaking, simply isn’t equipped to make compliance with such a precedent law possible. Shame on Target for not making its sites more accessible. Shame on me too when I haven’t done it (again, I will try harder).

He gives lip service to web accessibility, waving his finger in an avuncular warning, but fails to offer support for principles which would remove significant discriminatory practices from the most critical new media of our age. His justification?

If Target wants to turn its back on an important customer segment, that’s Target’s problem (and business decision). Not the court’s.

It is, in David Berlind’s mind, merely a business decision to discriminate against your audience – after all – all the items sold in the store aren’t marked with Braille. Altogether, a very poorly-informed piece of writing from an otherwise authoritative publication and author.

David’s article has already received some scathing commentary from the accessibility community.

This comment
attached to his blog post outlines a number of the unfortunate errors made in the article, and Joe Clark has also responded with his own points of correction. Both these responses are well worth reading, for a welcome correction to some clearly misunderstood points.

Readings on Accessible AJAX / Web 2.0: