Jeff Croft is a leading designer in CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and standards-based design. So, when he writes something questioning whether accessibility is over-emphasized, it draws a fair amount of attention. I’ve certainly taken notice.

Jeff raises some good points – ultimately, in the range of projects he works with, everything comes down to a business decision. Is the implementation of accessibility feature x worth the time and expense? Sometimes the answer is no. One specific comment he makes, which I absolutely agree with, is that accessibility is a continuum – the question is not whether a site is accessible or not (except in the most egregious cases) – it’s how accessible is the site?

But I do disagree on several points. Jeff states that the web community pounces on sites which have missed elements of accessibility because we’re "assuming the reason it’s not there is that the web designers were either lazy, or simply don’t give a damn about handicapped people", rather than because "a decision was made that it wasn’t worth the effort". Woah, there, Jeff! Actually, I go both ways. With a site which has clearly made great strides towards valid code and implemented some accessibility features, I depart very disappointed that business got in the way of accessibility. Only with completely incompetent table-based inaccessible designs to I assume that the web designers are lazy.

I understand that business requires hard decisions sometimes; but I’m still disappointed. I feel very strongly that accessibility is a wise business decision – providing good access to all visitors is good publicity and opens your market wider than it had been before. It is also, of course, the moral high ground – not always the strength of business decision making, unfortunately.

The web is not paper publishing. You cannot treat the web as paper. The web is superior to paper for accessibility, if it’s done right. Why not take advantage of this?

On Responsibility

The more and more I think about accessibility, the more I feel that the burden of accommodating the minorities who have low vision, are color blind, or just have a simple person predilection towards having text really damn big should fall on the operating system and browser makers, not web designers.

You’re right, Jeff. Operating systems and web browsers should provide more means to accomodate disabled users. And if they did, we could just go on our merry way. This is a great ideal – if we could do nothing but provide a beatiful image and have it interpreted by the operating system, our job would be so much easier! But it’s not the case, and we know perfectly well that it isn’t. Yes, there are many systems out there that have some provisions for better accessibility. But there aren’t enough – and not enough people know about them. So we’re stuck having to make certain we’ve done the best job we possibly can. The problem is that if we fail to provide accessibility, people without fancy tools are screwed. If we do provide accessibility, people with fancy tools still may receive the benefits of what we’ve done. Accessibility is for everybody – not just for the people who can afford top of the line computers with the latest accessibility benefits.

On the whole, I think that Jeff’s rant is well-reasoned. I disagree that accessibility has in any way been taken too far – perhaps Jeff’s impressions are largely from the Joe Clark "absolutist" perspective – but not all designers and accessibility advocates are like Joe Clark. The world does need people like Joe Clark to advocate the perfect accessible resource, but it also needs pragmatic developers who will go as far as they can within the limitations they are presented with.

However, there is one paragraph Jeff wrote (in the comments section) which really bothers me:

Basically, I’m for reaching the most accessible point you can without wasting great deals of time on insignificant minorities. Just using semantic markup and separating content from presentation goes a long way towards that.

Don’t ever try and tell me that some minority is insignificant. These are still people; and they still have rights and value. You can’t just write them off because it’s inconvenient. Acknowledge that you have failed to provide their needed level of accessibility and apologize for it. In the final reckoning, you cannot provide access for everybody – but don’t tell me that it would have been a waste of your time.