Accessibility is Equality

July 15, 2019

Topics: Accessibility, Web Development, Web standards.

I’ve long felt that accessibility is conceptually simple, and technically difficult. I’ve believed that if you can convey the fundamental concept of digital accessibility to somebody, everything else can be extrapolated from principles.

That doesn’t mean that somebody would conform to accessibility guidelines at any level based on this. Reaching for accessibility by application of principles doesn’t necessarily yield the same result as what you’ll find in accessibility guidelines, but – in principle – should still encourage a sound interpretation of digital accessibility.

One of the most valuable aspects of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 is in avoiding technology-specific language. While this can make the documents harder to understand, it also makes them more fundamentally meaningful, and better aligned with principles.

Articulating Accessibility Concepts

What I have found, however, is that while these concepts are clear in my head, they are difficult to articulate clearly.

WCAG 2.0 articulates four principles of accessibility – Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. These are a valuable approach to understanding how accessibility works on the web, and if you haven’t read about them, you should. Read a digestible summary of the four principles of accessibility.

These principles are valuable; but they’re focused on interfaces on the web. As such, they’re not truly fundamental. They’re an applicable layer of principles that are extremely useful for assessment, but aren’t the fundamental concepts of digital accessibility.

So what is fundamental in accessibility?

In my opinion, the fundamental characteristic of accessibility is equality. Accessibility is based on a recognition that everybody is entitled to an equal experience. Not an identical experience, as that can only exist if we assume that all people’s perceptions are identical.

Equality is a complex concept. In direct application, there are hard questions to assess: what alt attribute is “equal” to the picture it substitutes for? Is it an equal experience if you need to follow the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) in a longdesc attribute to get a full description of an image, when a sighted user gets the information directly? Practical equality is shaped by what is currently possible. You shouldn’t choose to create an inaccessible experience because it is impossible to make it exactly equal – do the best you can with the tools that exist.

Web Content Accessibility guidelines provide a set of rules that help inform you what degree of equality is considered acceptable. Don’t mistake the guidelines for optimal accessibility. Guidelines range from best practices to marginal workarounds. However, they can help you frame your thoughts when considering the many different ways a user might interact with a website.

Accessibility for Equality

I understand from a practical perspective that software applications are never truly finished, and releases have to happen at some point along the line. I understand that bugs and user experience problems will exist in every version released. Software developers make mistakes, and even well-considered decisions are sometimes wrong. But it pains me greatly when software is released with blatant known accessibility issues.

The choice to “fix it later” when applied to accessibility issues is you making the decision that you are releasing software that makes the world a worse place, with greater inequality.

As software becomes a larger and larger piece of our social fabric, the importance of accessibility as it applies to equality increases. As a developer, it is on you to learn your trade well enough to avoid contributing to inequality.

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