Is Legally Mandated Accessibility a Benefit?

September 18, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Law.

Although I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the principles of accessibility, the practical definition is challenging to really pin down. Given the widely criticized WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 and the sometimes questionable expectations of Section 508 accessibility guidelines, I’m have to wonder whether a legal accessibility requirement is really practical.

The problem is, to a degree, in the fact that in order to enforceable, the law would have to be very precise about what constitutes "web accessibility". Since experienced web developers can hardly even bring themselves to agree on the subtler details of the subject, it seems possible (and even probable) that a government prepared definition of accessibility would be severely lacking.

Imagine, if you will, that the government criteria for accessibility required the use of the accesskey attribute. (They don’t, but just imagine it.) This would mean that any site I created, in order to be considered legally accessible, would have to incorporate a technology which I firmly believe is detrimental to usability and accessibility.

It would be very unfortunate if any legal guidelines made use of specific technological guidelines, rules, or code functions to define the law. This kind of law making can only stymie continuing technological development and prevent newer or better assistive technologies from being adopted. It’s very unlikely that a viable law would be passed which exclusively relied on this kind of specificity.

However, it’s completely feasible to imagine that a law created to legislate web services could contain some degree of specificity which could get in the way of practical development.

You might say that WCAG 2.0 was actually written like a legal document: devoid of specific technological references and muddled with its own custom language, it obfuscates the specifics in favor of retaining long-term validity. May be of great benefit in law, where constant interpretation is the rule of the game — but less valuable in day to day development activities.

And yet, WCAG 2.0 is missing a lot of crucial pieces of the accessibility pie. All this legal abstraction does not actually create a complete documentation of web accessibility, missing elements such as consideration for cognitive disabilities, for example.

Is it possible to address accessibility with 100% success? Would it be beneficial to create accessibility laws which forced developers to adhere to obsolete or irrelevant guidelines? Perhaps a potential accessibility law would have to err on the side of inaccessibility – only cover those elements which are incontrovertibly significant, such as the use of alternative text for images.

Just something I was wondering today…

4 Comments on “Is Legally Mandated Accessibility a Benefit?”

  1. Well, I don’t have any problem with long comments – especially if you’re raising such valuable points as you have.

    The fact is that in our field, this concept is largely well-defined and if some chose to ignore it for whatever reason, they are wrong, period.

    I agree that the concept, defined broadly, is well established. It’s the details I’m more concerned about – which, in my opinion, are much more difficult to specify.

    You won’t hear any argument from me that some legal mandate for accessibility is very appealing: but only if it’s well written. The reasons for that requirement are exactly what you’ve stated: most businesses won’t do “the right thing” without that requirement.

    My concern is where a law ends up requiring developers to support just one concept of accessibility.

    I would heartily endorse any well-thought-out law concerning website accessibility: but I won’t endorse just any bill which comes forward.

    Web accessibility laws and standards documents may not be created solely for the benefit of web developers, but web developers are unquestionably very powerfully impacted by these laws (not always by standards, unfortunately…).


  2. Hi Joe,

    A couple of things here I would like to bring to this discussion (and I apologise in advance for the length of this comment).

    Whether developers agree or not on what accessibility is, while quite unfortunate, remains secondary to policy as far as I am concerned. The fact is that in our field, this concept is largely well-defined and if some chose to ignore it for whatever reason, they are wrong, period. In places where there is no legal or political framework, this is where this confusion can do the most damage. So whether accessibility is adequately defined on a legal or political level is far more important imho as this would be the point of reference for decision-makers, managers, advocates, developers, etc.

    I think we also need to make a distinction between legislation, policy and standards. Generally, a law should state the general principles and afforded rights, a policy should state the objectives and the means to attain those objectives and a standard should technically act as one of those means and therefore support the objectives in a very concrete way.

    I am obviously of the camp that feels that there should be a legal obligation towards Web accessibility, at the very least with regards to government resources. And by experience, I can say without reserve that this is necessary because you generally can not count on people, and especially governments and corporations, to be simply motivated to do the right thing. There will always be something people will want to put above the needs of persons with disabilities, for various reasons (often financial) because unfortunately, that is the kind of world we live in, for now anyway, and I do not see that changing any time soon.

    Finally, I think developers need to remember that all of this is not done solely for their benefit. A well-written standard is indeed a tool for them to adequately do their job but it is also a tool for all the other stake-holders to either know what they are obligated to ensure and what they need to require from their resources as well as a means for persons with disabilities (often through their advocacy agencies) to call governments, organisations, corporations, etc., on whether they did their job correctly and ultimately, on whether their rights are being upheld.

    And a well-written standard is not WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) (which are guidelines concerning basic requirements to ensure accessibility). A well-written standard is a technical document inspired in large part by requirements set out in WCAG and perhaps in other relevant sources and ideally elaborated with all stake-holders at the table (policy and decision-makers, managers, advocates, developers, etc.).

  3. Oh, and accesskey will be part of the guidelines only over my dead body.

    All right! How many bodyguards would you like me to hire for you? 😉

    Thanks for your comments – I’m glad to hear from somebody who’s specifically involved in the legislative aspects of web accessibility. Sounds like we’re in agreement about the principles needed!

  4. Well said! I’ll be participating on the panel that will be making recommendations for the update of the technical guidelines for Section 508. While I have no idea where the guidlines will go, my thoughts on the matter are very similar to your own.

    It is a very difficult task to generate guideliness that are specific and measureable (meaning legally sound), yet also flexible enough to accomodate various and new technologies. For the most part, the existing Section 508 guidelines developed in 1998 have done a pretty good job of this and I imagine that any changes to the guidelines will be similar – they will address real accessibility issues that are well understood and not likely to change in the next several years, yet will hopefully be more comprehensive (a lot more than just alt text and form labels).

    Oh, and accesskey will be part of the guidelines only over my dead body. 🙂