Resistance to accessibility

I was reading Anne Gibson’s excellent article on A List Apart (opens in new window) , Reframing Accessibility for the Web (opens in new window), and it got me thinking about resistance I’ve encountered to accessibility. It often feels as though the lot of the accessibility evaluator is to be continually telling developers, designers and management – no: no, that doesn’t work; no you can’t do it that way; no, you can’t use that really cool bit of functionality; no, that carefully coordinated colour scheme has to go.

This naturally leads to resistance, a reluctance to change, and even sometimes resentment – I can see it on their faces! And in truth, I felt similar emotions when I first encountered accessibility. All my beautiful code maligned! And now I have to learn a new way of thinking and doing things? Everything has been just fine until now!

Then followed frustration – I tried hard, but more often than not got it wrong. It was difficult to know what was accessible, and what was not – everything I did felt tentative. I lost confidence – there didn’t seem to be any hard and fast rules to follow. A solution that worked in one situation didn’t help in another. This seemed more akin to black magic than logical deduction. Feeling like I was always ‘wrong’ was very frustrating.

And so from these feelings, objections arise.

The objections

All this effort for just a few users?

People who have a disability are too often invisible in society – and frequently there is an assumption that a lot of disabled people wont even be able to use computers or the internet. But they do, of course, sometimes with the aid of assistive technology, which ranges from screen readers to a strong pair of spectacles to a sip and puff switch (opens in new window).

Here are some UK stats, to give a little context:

  • Roughly 5,500,000 people (8% of men and 0.5% of women) are color blind.
  • Roughly 11,050,000 (17% of people) have dyslexia to varying degrees
  • Roughly 360,000 people are registered blind or partially sighted (about 0.5% – 1% of the population), although there are many more who have not registered.
  • Around 10,000,000 (15%) of people have some form of hearing loss, and 800,000 are severely or profoundly deaf (1.2%).
  • About 5.5 million people have mobility problems, often meaning that they can’t use a computer mouse.
  • We have an aging population, so the number of people with reduced sight, hearing and / or mobility is on the increase.

All these people can potentially use the internet, and improve their lives. In fact disabled people often rely far more on the internet than others, because they may have no alternatives – popping out down to the shops can be difficult, when you either can’t drive or see what’s on the supermarket shelves.

It adds too much time and cost to a project

It is true that sometimes a purely financial argument in favour of accessibility doesn’t seem compelling, but I’d say in a modern inclusive society a purely financial approach alone isn’t enough justification one way or another. There are a lot of things that could be done cheaper, but we don’t because its recognized as discriminatory, unsafe or just plain unfair. It’s treating some people as “other” and “not normal”.

Are there ways to reduce the costs of creating accessible solutions? Obviously if developers are having to go back and retrofit solutions to accessibility issues, then yes, this could prove to be expensive. But as with anything, if issues are addressed at the beginning of a project, as an integral part of the development cycle, then the extra amount of work can actually become quite minimal. Plus overtime accessibility will become second nature to people, and fewer problems will arise as the project progresses.

In short, once accessibility is an accepted integral part of the process of development, it will involve less effort over time, and become less costly. And actually, by being accessible you will increase your customer base. Plus it is notable that accessible websites are often easier and more pleasant to use for everyone.

But no one we employ is blind or partially sighted

OK, they say, we can see there are punters out there with disabilities – but for our back-end systems, they say, we wont bother there. For instance, no one we employ is blind.

This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither does this argument take into account that workforces are constantly changing, and that disabled people will be most certainly applying for positions – I mean why not? And this will only increase in the future as society as a whole becomes more inclusive, and assistive technologies improve.

In short, this rationale means a blind person will never be able to be hired. There is a direct cause and effect at work here between not having accessible solutions that treat people as people first, and not having employees who rely on accessible solutions.

But no one else does this!

I often feel like just pointing to the Equality Act (2010) (opens in new window), which makes it illegal to discriminate against employing anybody with disabilities, and that where reasonable adjustments can be made, they must. Whether other organisations comply or not has no bearing on whether their own organisation or projects need to comply with this law. It’s a bit like when as a child, I was (often) admonished, “would you jump off a cliff because your friend did?”.

But blind people cannot do this job, they need sight

This needs to be examined in the light of whether reasonable adjustments can be made, which might just be the use of a screen reader.

There are other solutions to seemingly intractable problems. For instance, it is common that a blind person may make use of support workers, who assist them in areas where sight is needed. For instance, a recent project I worked on required confirmation that an id photo actually was that of the employee. A support worker solved this issue.

On a broader level, people often make unwarranted assumptions about what a person with disabilities is capable of. For instance, I’ve been told that a client’s audience can’t be blind – doctors, for instance. Well, yes, a surgeon probably needs to be sighted, but there are plenty of areas of practice where this is not the case. For example, psychiatry, physiotherapy, counseling or clinical research.

Its not our fault assistive technologies cannot work properly


Assistive technologies are often playing catch up with latest techniques and technologies, so I do sympathise when its felt that they are holding innovation back. But then this is not an argument that is ever used to justify not meeting the requirement for websites and applications to work across a broad range of often “quirky” browsers, like for instance, our old friend Internet Explorer.

Clients rightly demand that whatever browsers their customers are using, they should have the same experience. So developers have to find workarounds and solutions must be found. The same arguments are applicable for assistive technologies, and the same efforts are needed to make sure that users reliant on those technologies have the same access to information, or are able to buy the goods and services on offer. We should be designing and developing for the technologies people use, with their current capabilities.

Overcoming resistance

I’ve never got the feeling from developers and designers I’ve worked with that they just don’t care if their websites or apps are inaccessible or not. Often in chatting to them, I’ll find they have a friend or a relative who struggles to use the internet for one reason or another – so they can see the benefits. Or sometimes we consider that it might be ourselves for one reason or another who might come to rely on accessibility.

No, often it’s that they’re unsure what accessibility really means or what it entails in practice – they feel as if they are working in the dark. Its an unknown. It’s understandable they are reticent and resistant if they feel unsure how to recognize and address accessibility issues.

It can take a lot of effort to get up to speed on accessibility – there is a learning curve. Being told they’ve done it wrong all the time is discouraging, and can leave them floundering. But like anything else, it starts to become easier the more you learn and gain confidence. I’ve found actually sitting down with developers, talking through issues, finding solutions together is really helpful for everyone. It sounds a bit simplistic, but having the opportunity to encourage and praise, and find elegant solutions together, is really motivating. It’s a great way to learn

Another effective way of interesting people in accessibility is using a kind of techie bait –  talking about how screen readers work. Or even better, having a blind person demonstrating a screen reader – people are fascinated! Most people I have worked with have never really seen the actual impact of good or bad accessibility on real people using assistive technologies, and seeing this makes it very real and easier to understand. Seeing the difficulties a person faces doing everyday things they take for granted turns an abstract issue into something real world and concrete. And it becomes plain that what they do does make a difference to people’s lives, and how many things are more pleasing than that?


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