Barriers to Improving the Web Accessibility Game Plan

This past March, Jared Smith moderated a session at CSUN titled "Do We Need To Change the Web Accessibility Game Plan". The discussion at and after the session was filled with interesting perspectives. The diversity of viewpoints demonstrates what a complex topic this really is. I’d like to take my stab at addressing this topic, inspired by this blog post by Vlad Alexander which kicked off the original conversation:

The problem is that the Web has not become significantly more accessible in the last 5 years. Will it become significantly more accessible 5 years from now? 10 years from now? 15 years from now? Is our current strategy to make the Web accessible working? Are there any signs on the horizon that things are going to improve, or are we treading water? Is most of our energy being used not to fight for new accessibility features but to stop the erosion of existing ones? Do we need a new game plan?

I would say, without a doubt, that we (accessibility advocates/ evangelists/ consultants/ whatever) definitely need a new game plan. Overall accessibility people are viewed as a band of boorish hysterics by most of the people we come across. Everyone not already "clued in" to accessibility approaches us like we’re Milton from Office Space. We definitely need to improve our game plan. To do so, we need to recognize what things stand in our way.

Low Barrier to Entry (Developers)

I had the fortune, this past May, to have dinner at the home of Jim Thatcher with a number of people I admire including Wayne Dick, Sharron & Ron Rush, Ann Chadwick-Dias, Marguerite Bergel, and Lainey Feingold. During the evening’s conversation, Lainey asked a great question about what people thought explained why the web was inaccessible. My answer was that it was primarily due to the low barrier to entry for someone to get a job as a developer. In order to become a software or web developer, all you need to do is buy/ download an IDE and learn to use it competently. This is vastly different than in the brick & mortar world where engineers must meet certain criteria in order to become an engineer. You will not get a job as an engineer without meeting the requirements for licensure. Furthermore as an engineer does his job, his work is subject to inspection to ensure it is being done in accordance with all relevant codes. Such is not the case for web developers and software "engineers". In order to get a job in web development, all you often need to do is pass an interview and present a portfolio of past work which ostensibly indicates that you can perform the work called for in that role. That role often doesn’t include accessibility.

The first step to changing the accessibility game plan will be to ensure that everyone involved in creating websites has been properly trained in accessibility. This includes designers, developers, content creators, project managers. Because so many developers are self-taught, they are not going to know accessibility unless they’ve been expected to know it. Developers aren’t evil for not knowing accessibility, they’re just uneducated. We need to educate them.

Low Barrier to Entry (Accessibility People)

As Derek Featherstone said in 2006: In order to become an accessibility consultant, all you need to do is buy some business cards with the title "Accessibility Consultant". I’m not going to lie, in the early parts of my career, I was one of those people. Back in about 2003 or so I thought that I was an expert in accessibility because I knew web development and because I had read some articles and diligently read e-mail discussion lists on the topic. Man, was I wrong! At that time, I had never used an assistive technology and had never even seen a user with disabilities interact with my website. I was clueless. Even worse: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wasn’t alone and still wouldn’t be alone. Just as most developers are self-taught, so are most accessibility people. The disparities in the level of knowledge among those in the accessibility industry is massive.

The next step to changing the accessibility game plan is to educate the people whose job it is to do accessibility work. Ideally this should be handled through an independent certification program and/ or through the inclusion of accessibility in computer science programs.

Preaching to the Converted

We need to stop spending so much time talking to each other and start talking to others. The accessibility industry is small. There are really only four viable enterprise-class web accessibility testing tools. There are only about five consulting firms which have the capacity to deal with large clients. Then there are about three or four dozen most notable people in this industry. That’s really tiny if you think about it. For us to make a significant impact to the overall state of web accessibility, we need to stop preaching to the converted and start branching out to non-believers.

The accessibility game plan can be improved by reaching out to others:

Whatever we do, we need to stop talking to each other and start talking to others. We need to begin participating in web-related communities that are not accessibility and begin advocating for accessibility within those communities.

The Industry is Still Young

All (yes, all) of the largest accessibility companies in the United States were founded between 1998 and 2000. The Web Accessibility Initiative was launched in 1997 The first WCAG guidelines were published in 1999. Freedom-Scientific was founded in 2000. All-in-all, this industry is still very young. It has only been recently, from my perspective, that the outside world has cared much about accessibility. We need to keep this in perspective and understand that change doesn’t happen over night. Our goal in this regard should be to keep applying pressure. Increased awareness will come if we remain diligent but patient in continuing to apply pressure.


Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is rampant in accessibility. As an industry, we need to re-evaluate our approaches to selling what we do. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been in which devolved into a FUD-based rant when one side of the discussion expressed disagreement with the importance of accessibility. In fact, I’ve been prone to do so myself in the past. As an industry we need to abandon self-righteousness, argumentativeness, threats, and hysteria and take a different approach to selling accessibility. I believe we need to be honest and open about the benefits (and lack thereof in some cases) of accessibility and the time and money involved, where appropriate. We need to learn how to speak with others about accessibility and not at them. If we can educate outsiders so that they understand accessibility, we can get them to agree with us a lot easier than by threatening them.

NOTE: I don’t mean to suggest that we should not discuss Risk. We should definitely discuss Risk, as it is a very real concern for some organizations. At the same time, we should not overstate the risk people face. If their risk is small, we should acknowledge that.

Lacking Body of Knowledge

There is a shocking lack of independent and open knowledge out there on accessibility. If we were to assemble a full compendium of information that exists on accessibility on the web, what we’d find is that the information is incomplete, inconclusive, and inconsistent. The earliest publication of scholarly articles on Web Accessibility is around 1996. In total, there are 11,500 results in Google scholar for the search string "Web Accessibility". Of those 11,500 results there are probably thousands which are irrelevant. By contrast, the search string "Project Management" returns 513,000 results. While this isn’t a perfect comparison, it demonstrates the low amount of scholarly information on the topic.

As an industry, everyone involved in accessibility tends to keep everything they do secret, as if they’re guarding national intelligence. We need to begin sharing knowledge with one another and collaborating on research. Disability rights organizations need to begin funding scholarly research and we need to begin creating a cohesive body of knowledge which covers the best practices necessary for making an accessible web. By doing so, we’ll be able to provide clear, cohesive guidance to those who are new to accessibility and accessible web development.

Users Need to Become Their Own Advocates

Ultimately, accessibility is about people – people who need the web to be accessible in order to be successful in its use. One of the barriers I see to convincing organizations into making their sites accessible is that they don’t understand the impact an inaccessible site makes. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: people aren’t evil because their website is inaccessible. Their website is inaccessible because they’re ignorant. They will remain ignorant until we can educate them. One important way to do that is for users to contact organizations about their inaccessible site. Organizations respond to pressure from the outside. If no pressure is applied, no response is made. Therefore users need to become their own advocates for an accessible web by applying some of that pressure themselves.

We Need to Offer Pragmatic Solutions, Not Preaching and Problems

The final thing I’d like to mention is that we in the accessibility industry need to change our mindset from presenting problems to presenting solutions. Accessibility, as a topic, carries with it the negative impression that we’ve created. Through constantly complaining, nagging, and telling people how wrong they are, we’ve made our very existence burdensome to others. We’re the Debbie Downer of IT. Developers think of us as people who are always telling them they can’t do things because of accessibility. We need to stop telling people ‘No’ and start offering them specific solutions about "How" to meet their goals accessibly. Developers will then look at us as the provider of pragmatic accessibility solutions and not the thorn in their side that they see us as now.

In answering the original question "Do we need to change the web accessibility game plan" I guess we should first acknowledge that so far we’ve positioned ourselves as antagonistic toward developers and business owners. We need to change this impression if we’re to move forward in improving the accessibility game plan.

If you are interested in learning about the next generation in Web Accessibility Testing, give a try.
If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]


  • Olivier
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:51 am   Permalink

    Always kinda weird to read out things that have been populating one’s mind for a while. And in this case, right on spot, IMHO. Strikingly, all the subjects you mention in this post have been discussed and debated, here in France, with some of my peers, and I’m lucky enough to be in contact with the most recognized experts in the field.
    Of course we work on a smaller scale, partially by virtue of the linguistic/cultural barriers, that prevents most professionals from comfortable access to the most bleeding-edge resources. But we face exactly the same hurdles, and one has to hold on one’s faith to embrace such a career. It’s at the same time reassuring and depressing that these issues are shared probably everywhere else!
    We also find hard to rely on users’ support, for cultural and structural reasons, including the way local organisations are funded (“don’t bite the hand that feeds you”).
    I think one of the way to foster results is to give to potential newcomers incentives and rewards. A prospective fulfilling position, on financial, technical and ethical points of view, will attract skilled devs, that will in return raise the global level of expertise and knowledge.
    Existing practitioners should also be relieved of “menial” tasks, such as low-class audits, code and contents nursing and the like. It’s an idea I tried to promote at the 2011 European Accessibility Forum (Ways to optimize your accessibility expert interventions [slideshare, fr] – sorry for it being in French, I might consider a translation if required), with mantras like “Don’t use an expert to assess your website. Learn to do it yourself, and do it”. I think high-profile experts should have time to devote to more difficult issues than checking proper contrast or page titles. I see too many peers overwhelmed by time-consuming, low-value tasks like these, and unable to set up proper methods, resources and so on to share with others. All of them know the value of free knowledge sharing, and are keen on doing it. But most simply don’t have enough time to do it.
    I’m eagerly looking forward to practical solutions your readers will come up with!

  • Cliff Tyllick
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 5:05 pm   Permalink

    Great post, Karl! As I was reading it, I started to think, “He’s covered just about everything, but what we really need to make it work is to focus on pragmatic solutions, not preaching.” And, lo and behold, there it was, as your final point.

    That’s especially important in reviewing solutions. So often I’ve seen a person who is trying to learn how to create an accessible Word document, PowerPoint presentation, PDF, or Web page ask for advice from a group of accessibility experts. And then the debate begins: Does it have enough contrast? Does it have too much contrast for people with low vision? Does the placement of the form labels conform with WCAG? Will it work when viewed through a screen magnifier? In Braille? In an RTL language? Will their alt text work in an RTL language in Braille?

    Yes, we want to be inclusive. But our questions and posturing have just convinced this person who is trying to do the right thing for the right reasons of two points.

    First, that accessibility is far too complex to grasp unless it’s your full-time job.

    Second, that it’s impossible to meet all the demands of accessibility.

    And, in showing off to one another our presumed expertise, we have pushed this person away from our community.

    Instead, let’s be pragmatic and accept “good enough.” Let’s accept that even though a few situations might require a little more, at some point all that’s reasonable to ask for is a commitment to do more when and if needed. And let’s realize that at some point it’s the responsibility of the assistive technology to interpret a properly coded document. Let’s not expect the authors to design solutions to every conceivable situation.

    Because people who feel they have been recognized for a good first effort are more likely to feel comfortable coming to us for more help in the future. And they’re more likely to keep trying to do a better job by learning more about creating accessible content.

    That’s how to show them that, even if they’re only passing through, they’re welcome in our community.

  • jimtobias
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:37 am   Permalink

    I totally agree with your insights about misplaced evangelical behavior, technical one-up-manship, and the lack of a consensed body of knowledge.

    I’m dubious about being able to certify either web developers or accessibility specialists. The professions of architecture and engineering you cite as analogies arose during a very different time, when professions were more like guilds, self-regulating and sovereign. I doubt we’re going back that way any time soon, especially in America — modern ‘management’ roles have taken control of the product development process in all its forms, including websites, and it’s almost impossible to enforce professional norms that aren’t somehow legally required or deep in the culture.

    I’m not even sure that it’s a lack of knowledge or professional quality among accessibility practitioners that’s holding us back. Most of the inaccessible sites are inaccessible not because accessibility has been botched but because it’s been ignored — it’s a motivational deficit.

    That’s why I think the legal path, as imperfect as it is, will continue to be such a powerful tool for us. If we could generate a highly visible lawsuit every month — let’s say it cost $1 million a year to do that — we would see an increase in demand for our services ten times that. Good investment, no? It’s another reason for doing as you suggest, staying close to consumer advocacy groups as our natural allies.

    Our other powerful tool is cultural — accessibility resonates with so many ‘web values’, especially universality, personalization, and convenience. This is why accessibility has succeeded so well with people who are emotionally committed to the web, including web professionals.

    This brings me to the point I raised at the CSUN session: accessibility is a funny hybrid of social movement and technical profession. As you note, we’re always misbehaving in public, either preaching (to ourselves or our clients) or making wild claims about the business case. On the one hand we want to see improved tools and consensed best practices; on the other, we resent and resist bureaucratization and cookie-cutter techniques.

    If we want to change some of that, we could do worse than look at how other such hybrids act. A lot has been written about social movements, and the sociology of professions (not that anyone reading this blog ever willingly took a sociology course…).

    I think the best analogy is environmentalism: quite successful both as a social movement and as a set of professions, laws, regulations, organizational processes, etc.

    There’s even a history of accessibility before the web (yes, I am very old). For example, RERCs including Trace date back to the mid-1970s. Independent living centers arose around the same time, and many (including Berkeley’s CIL, where I worked) offered some technical services.

    So I’m arguing for some more formal and rigorous attention to the non-technical aspects of the domain of web accessibility. A little bit is already going on, but we need a whole lot more. Some likely partners are the Society for Disability Studies and university programs in “Science, Technology, and Society”. Viewed through those lenses, accessibility should be able to provide grist for any number of case studies and dissertations, while helping us strategize. I’d be enthusiastic about reaching out to those folks, if anyone else is interested.

  • Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:47 am   Permalink

    Hi Karl,

    Are there limits to what education can accomplish?

    For example:

    – Website creators familiar with accessibility often choose not to include accessibility features or test for usability of their work because the client/employer has not asked/paid them to do so.

    – Tool vendors knowledgeable in accessibility still include features such as color pickers that create inaccessible markup because these features sell.

    – Technology creators, well educated in accessibility, working within standards organizations such as WHATWG and W3C choose to add inaccessible features such as “canvas” to HTML, or remove/water-down existing accessibility features.

    – Experts in accessibility push to use ARIA where it does not fit (as a replacement for @alt), creating technology too complex for Web developers to use and requiring a 45-page document to explain it.

    It’s true that education is a powerful tool, but on its own does not seem to be working very well.

    Posted June 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm   Permalink

    in response to

    I’m a web developer who knows what he’s doing somewhat well, and I’ve evangelized a11y issues at times, and downplayed them at others.

    In general, I’m really impressed at your perspective here and think you’ve nailed quite a few thoughts I’ve been having recently. 🙂

    As a developer, the people who are most helpful are the ones explaining what the actual affects are of making sites more accessible… Most people I know that saw Yahoo’s Victor Tsaran use a screenreader on video just dropped their jaws instantly. People like Jason Kiss and Steve Faulkner who detail the behavior and support in browsers and screenreaders are providing the developer community with invaluable knowledge, stuff that is far more worthwhile than publishing a yet another list of you-should-do-these-things.

    Most developers have no idea what effect adding ARIA markup to our documents has on people using screenreaders. We need that. Actual before-and-after video stuff makes this topic real.

    Most developers have no idea how to implement ARIA. The W3C Primer that looks like a spec is just.. laughable.. not at all appropriate for a web developer audience.

    Screenreader developers need to man up and get with the program. I don’t know how the a11y community feels but to me it feels like yelling at a fucking brick wall with JAWS and Window Eyes. We just kinda hope and pray their support for things improve. As a pragmatic approach, I tell developers that if it works in NVDA, good enough. We have a mess of browsers we need to support already, dealing with ATs that lag years behind is not at all feasible.

    A certification program for web developers will not work.

    Just like it’s valuable to witness an a11y usability session where you see how disabled people use your site, I think it’d be useful for the accessibility community to see how developers build, because thus far there has been a disconnect in communicating effectively.

    I don’t think we need more on the ground evangelism yet. There is a dearth in online resources at the moment. We need stuff on

    how to do this stuff well
    what the browser/screenreader support is (ARIA, HTML5, longdesc, etc)
    what are the top priorities for developers to implement (no one has a lot of time, as you know)
    what one thing can i do as a web developer to my sites and apps that dramatically improves the UX for my otherly-abled users
    fucking focus rings. how do they work? Someone please show a demo.

    Anyway, Karl, this post is probably the best one on accessibility I’ve seen… ummm.. ever? 🙂 Thank you.

  • davidct1209
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:01 pm   Permalink

    “Low Barrier to Entry (Accessibility People)”

    Can’t agree with this section enough.

    From a purely technical perspective, if one looks hard enough, accessibility isn’t just HTML/js/css, but drives deep into a platform’s stack. Peeling back the layers,and all of the interoperating pieces, it’s a wonder that anything works. Save reading through the source of webkit, Firefox, NVDA, MSAA/IAcc2/Cocoa, modern web 2.0 js libraries ala JQuery, etc — one can’t possibly get the whole picture. Move any one of those pieces and web accessibility moves in its “correctness”.

    However, for users of the top of that stack, it matters a whole lot that advocates for accessibility actually understand the whole story. For every point of user confusion or pain point, there’s a technical solution; unfortunately, most if not all consultants don’t have the technical depth to provide it when it comes to complex issues we’re facing with js today.

  • Vicki
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 8:37 am   Permalink

    Excellent post, Karl!

  • karlgroves
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:59 am   Permalink

    I just wanted to say thank you to all of you for posting your comments. I’m sort of new to the blogging thing. In my previous websites, my content mostly consisted of “articles” without any ability for users to comment. I tend to favor an approach where visitors can comment and I’ll let their comments stand, even in cases where I disagree (which, for the most part I don’t in this case). Thank you all for taking the time to read, register, and respond. I’ll be making some follow-up posts in a bit.

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