Elements or Lower

Tue, 08 Jun 2004

The “Myth” of Accessibility

In WCAG and the Myth of Accessibility, Kevin Leitch argues that accessibility based only on access for users with visual impairments isn’t really accessibility at all. Leitch notes that, in the UK, 2.5m people are known to suffer from a disability affecting their seeing or hearing, compared to 3.9m people with a learning or understanding disability. He then observes that the WAI guidelines focus on design strategies to help access for people with seeing, hearing and (to a lesser extent) manual dexterity disabilities, but have little to say on the subject of learning and understanding disabilities.

All of this, of course, is true. The WAI guidelines don’t address the needs of people with learning difficulties in any direct way. Now, the argument that this makes the stated goals of the WAI a myth is clearly specious, and I really don’t want to waste any time with it. But I feel that the article misses a really important distinction — one that the later comments posted to the article have picked up on: accessibility for people with visual impairments is mostly a design issue, whereas accessibility for people with learning disabilities is mostly an editorial one.

Leitch includes a link to a very helpful resource from Mencap outlining tips for accessibility for people with learning difficulties. Here’s a representative handful:

This is all good stuff, and contains some material highly relevant to designers when putting sites together. However, even those points are largely an expression of general usability principles, writ large. The emphasis seems to be that whatever’s important from a usability perspective (make text easy-to-read, make navigation and design consistent, employ sensible information architecture) is essential from the perspective of access for people with learning disabilities. It would seem that the poor design choices that irritate pretty much everyone, make the experience genuinely hard for people with learning difficulties.

To the extent that any putative guidelines for accessibility for people with learning difficulties would articulate these usability issues, designers interested in accessibility are already talking in the right terms. Accessibility doesn’t end with the WAI guidelines, and no-one’s really arguing that it does.

Other points in the list, however, plainly concern the content of a page itself — the complexity and precision of the language used, and the employment of illustration. Genuine accessibility for people with learning difficulties involves keeping an eye on the punctuation used and the length of sentences. These are clearly editorial issues.

Sometimes a designer has a degree of control over the content of a page, and in the days of static sites, designers would spend a great deal of time refining nuggets of text to within an inch of their lives. But when you’re designing for a site that’s to be run through a Content Management System, you’re (mercifully, in my view) freed from this. The client writes their own content and your role in accessibility is to make sure that the markup used for this content is kosher. In these circumstances, a designer simply can’t have jurisdiction over whether an author uses jargon in the same way that you can over whether they use alternative texts for embedded images.