Karl Groves

Tech Accessibility Consultant
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Telephone
+1 443.875.7343
Email
karl@tenon.io
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@karlgroves

How dare you try to infiltrate our special club?

It first happened when I was in junior high. In elementary school, everyone was friends with everyone else. White kids, black kids, asian kids, boys and girls all seemed to get along. Then, in junior high, for some reason people started segmenting. The black kids and asians sat all together in their own sections of the cafeteria. The jocks, popular, and “normal” kids sat together. The “heads”, as they were known then sat together, etc. There was no more everybody-friends-with-everybody else. Now we were segmented. As we got older, it got even more segmented. Even worse was how the different groups basically avoided interacting with the others from different groups. My group was the punk rockers & metal heads. See, where I lived and at that time, there was a big crossover movement of speed metal & thrash. Bands like DRI, the Accused, and Nuclear Assault blurred the lines between punk rock and metal such that the groups who listened to either type of music often found themselves identifying with one another. There wasn’t much difference, for instance, between the political messages of Dead Kennedys and Nuclear Assault.

The thing that attracted me to punk rock, admittedly, was the attitude of rebelling against the mainstream. Being a punk rocker was saying “I’m not going to fit in to your predefined notions of what “normal” is, I’m going to be who I want to be and do what I want to do.” Or so I thought. The problem, in hindsight: All I was doing was joining another clique. How can you say you’re “different” when you’re dressing, acting, and behaving like everyone in your circle of friends? Worse still was the way they treated others outside their group. God forbid someone listen to a different kind of music or wear different clothes. In fact, I remember when the singer of a popular local speed metal band cut his hair and started wearing “normal” clothes. He may as well have contracted leprosy. Never mind the fact that he was the same person that he’d always been – and still liked the same music. No, he had to now be referred to as “the normal guy”. If you’re reading this as an adult, you’re probably remembering similar times back when you were a teenager and saw the same thing. Maybe even chuckling inside, thinking: “How laughably immature we were as kids!“. Immature indeed.

So why are we still doing this as adults?!?

Last week, Dennis Lembree posted: Leave Accessibility to the Experts, Please in which he exclaimed frustration that others in the web community were giving incorrect information about accessibility. Admittedly it wasn’t just “others in the web community”, but rather it was on blog posts by Cris Coyier and Jeffrey Zeldmann, two rather well known names in the web developer community. While I agree that it is important that accessibility-related information on the web be accurate & relevant, I take very serious issue with the sentiment that we should “leave accessibility to the experts”. Specifically, I have three problems with this:

  • What exactly is the definition of “accessibility expert”?
  • Alienating mainstream developers
  • Alienating accessibility newbies

Essentially, saying “leave accessibility to the experts” is, as I read it, exactly like saying “If you’re not an accessibility expert, don’t talk about accessibility. Only accessibility experts are allowed to do that.”

First, I would like to know exactly what qualifies one as an Accessibility Expert. As far as I know, this has yet to be defined, which is very unfortunate. I’d like to end the ambiguity over this matter and know exactly what it takes, because I have a strong suspicion that the definition of  “accessibility expert” differs considerably across the community. What do people consider an “expert”? What draws the line between the expert and non-expert? Who is the qualified third party capable of making this distinction? If we cannot agree to what does or does not earn someone the designation of “accessibility expert” how can we “leave accessibility to the experts”?  How can we know who those experts are unless it has been defined for us?  From here on out, I’ll be using “accessibility experts” in quotes because I don’t think this has been defined yet.

This attitude of exclusivity only serves to drive even more of a wedge between the accessibility community and the mainstream web design & development community. When you Google Jeffrey Zeldman and Chris Coyier you get 290,000 and 189,000 results, respectively. Zeldman has 299,835 Twitter followers and Coyier has 61,227. Given the reach of these two people, it seems smarter for the accessibility community to embrace these types of people and make them our friends, not our enemies. Instead what I see, from so many in the accessibility community, are attacks on others. Some of these attacks are even listed in the WebAxe “year in review”. Instead of actually helping people and encouraging them, certain people in the accessibility community would rather spend their time telling others how wrong they are. Of all the communities to which I belong, people in the accessibility community are the most likely to dish out “drive-by criticism”. It is embarrassing and brings shame to the community as a whole. Furthermore, it is wholly counter productive to our common goal of a more accessible Web for everyone.

This doesn’t mean that we give people a free pass for being wrong. I believe “accessibility experts” have an obligation to correct misinformation. This has to happen as a way to educate others, including those who have a broad reach. The important thing to keep in mind is that there’s a distinct and important difference between helpful guidance and needless criticism. Most of that difference is in the tone of the delivery. The words one chooses in delivering a message – and the tone of those words – are important in ensuring the message is well received. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar used to give a great example of this with “I did not say he beat his wife”.:

  1. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – Plain statement of fact.
  2. I did not say he beat his wife.” – The statement was made, but not by me.
  3. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – A statement of denial.
  4. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – I implied it, but I didn’t say it.
  5. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – His wife was beat, but he didn’t do it.
  6. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – He may have slapped her, but he didn’t beat her.
  7. “I did not say he beat his wife.” – He beat someone’s wife, but not his.

Unfortunately on the web, there’s really little way to convey tone. You can use emphasis markup like I did above, but the thing about the web is that you really can’t predict how people will receive your message. You should assume the worst whenever your message is critical of the recipient, and the more terse your message, the more likely the user will receive it as overly critical. I’ve personally been bitten by this one myself. It is important to pay close attention to the words we choose when communicating our critique. We need to understand that the recipient of our message may not be quite the “accessibility expert” that we are, so we need to be kind, clear, and helpful. Overly terse, broad, and unclear statements, like “And for the record, in Figures 6 and 7, the image element for the logo is missing alt text.” aren’t helpful and instead make you look like a pedantic jerk. No wonder accessibility folks get a bad rap.

When it comes to dishing out critique, I often also think people need to get some perspective when it comes to choosing who & what to criticize. Unsolicited public critiques of sites like Disability.gov or the US Paralympics site are, in my view, attacks on our own community and demonstrate a true lack in understanding the nature of accessibility on the web as a whole. As I said in my “Lets put down the pitchforks” post:

In the case of the US Paralympics site, I ran my own independent (automated) test and found 44 errors, but my test settings are probably too conservative and eyeballing the results shows more than a dozen things I’d probably eliminate from a final report.

When you weigh the 44 issues on the US Paralympics website’s homepage against the Alexa Top 100 you see clearly that the US Paralympics site isn’t so bad afterall. So what, exactly is the point of this type of critique? To shame someone into compliance? When someone has clearly made an effort to do a good job, you don’t pounce on them and publicly ridicule them. This is entirely the opposite of what should be happening.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure to hear Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden give a speech at IBM/IEEE conference In Boston, MA. He made a brilliant comment: “our industry needs to stop eating our young”. That comment really resonated with me because this industry can really be hard on newcomers …
Debra Ruh, in a conversation on LinkedIn

By all means, do all the unsolicited critiques you want – but can we concentrate on making a real difference in the world by critiquing sites that have a broad reach? With all due respect to the US Paralympics team, I think that the accessibility of the Alexa Top 100 (heck, top 1000) is far more important. While we’re at it, can we also ensure that we do it politely and with a goal of education? Instead of “here’s a list of all the things you totally screwed up”, how about “here’s a list of improvements, why they’re important, how it will make your site better for its users.” Heck, even better, give some code examples.

We need to embrace, not alienate

As Christian Heilmann says, “Drive-by Criticism Must Die”. In the accessibility community we need to actively invite and embrace those who are new to it and those who show interest in it. This isn’t an exclusive club reserved solely for “Accessibility Experts”. Instead of criticism, how about some encouragement?

A good critic doesn’t only point out that something is flawed, instead it is important to explain what the flaws are, what their impact on the overall quality is and what could be done to improve. A bad critic flat out tells what should be done, believing in a subjective truth or way of working formed by the critic’s own environmental influences.
Drive-by Criticism Must Die

For my part, I encourage anyone & everyone who needs some advice, guidance, or encouragement to contact me. I have always been open to helping others by answering questions over telephone, email, and chat and I will proudly continue to do so. If you’re reading this, you have an open invitation to contact me.

For other reactions to the “Leave Accessibility to the Experts” silliness, see:

Two things I’ve never done

In order to increase the focus of this post to the main point, I’ve made some adjustments after getting feedback on ways I could clarify the message.

Edit: I removed a portion of the paragraph on experts because it implied that to be an expert you must have, as Denis Boudreau said “godlike webdev skills”. I meant to point out merely that peoples’ definitions of what an “expert” is may vary significantly depending on one’s perspective.

Edit2: Reduction in the “attacking” tone. This hopefully clarifies the point a bit better.