The biggest barrier to accessibility and inclusive design is us

I’ve just finished reading this gem of a blog post ranting on and on that usability and accessibility are overrated and I stand mildly impressed, but I also utter a sigh of “not again”. First and foremost this is what annoys me most about it:

By the way if what you’re saying doesn’t cause any controversy then
  • you’ve just discovered some new universal truth (only happens in maths),
  • or you’re just repeating some nicely sounding but ultimately meaningless slogan like “use the best tool for the job”,
  • or most likely - nobody reads your blog.
So controversy and exaggeration to get the point across are good.

He is right, of course - blogging is war and only by misleading and cloaking your real intentions in exaggeration will you be able to reach the herds of stupid people that read your blog. Don’t bother trying to persuade people with positive and interesting examples - a good smack to the head is what the web needs - constantly. You are our only hope.*

* might contain exaggeration

Actually - and please tell me off I am wrong about this - I found that full-on-guns-blazing articles and blog posts meant to spark controversy are in most of the cases simply based on either extreme boredom or just plain lack of subject matter experience and knowledge (another reason is that it gets you a lot of feedback fast and makes you stand out - after all you are the most important person there is).
It is amazingly easy to de-rail for example constructive meetings and communication with a simple “But let me play devil’s advocate here for a second…”.

With the aim to spark controversy and exaggerate in mind, I am happy to dismiss most of the rest of the post as misguided ranting with maybe a grain of truth. Therefore let’s take a closer look at this grain for a bit.

Accessibility and inclusive design has one massive enemy: bad communication

Whoever thinks that inclusive design and accessibility is a technical problem is sadly mistaken. While it is true, that technical barriers to making things accessible are legion, the main problem is that we just don’t talk to each other the right way.

Truly inclusive and accessible products are a result of people who understand the needs of other people working with people that know how to make machines behave the way we want them to. Sadly enough these skills are in a lot of cases mutually exclusive.

A problem of communication channels

This starts with communication channels. When you work with charities who can test products with various levels of access you have to deal with a lot of red tape when it comes to communication - no work on Fridays, OOO messages, decisions have to be signed off by three people all of them available on different days of the week and during different times. When you want to reach another developer you check their online status and send them an instant message or a direct twitter message. If they are offline you send them an email and you know for a fact that an answer will be back to you at the latest in a few hours.

Developers will get frustrated when you don’t answer their emails for days, and they will get very annoyed when you call them on the phone for a simple question instead of just pinging them or sending them an email. Emails make sense - you know what you talked about and you can answer them as part of your work - picking up a phone means a disruption in your day-to-day work.

Non-technical folk however are frustrated by instant messaging and emails as these things are not part of their every day life.

In essence, we communicate with the wrong means in the wrong manner. This leads to frustrations and truisms when it comes to interaction between the two groups.

A problem with language - keeping it simple is not an option

The next issue accessibility has is that both parties just don’t communicate with another in easy to understand terms - which has quite a bit of irony to it especially when it comes to accessibility.

Tech people have quite an interesting way of communicating - the speed of online communication takes its toll and you can see that both in heavily reduced sentence length and in over-use of three letter acronyms. Many a comedy writer is taking this on right now and both The IT crowd and The Big Bang Theory are great examples to illustrate how we come across.

Accessibility people on the other hand have an own complex world of their own - especially when it comes to political correctness of what to call what group of people with which kind of - dear me, can I call it a problem, a disability or should I go for different ability? All of these terms have been changing constantly over the years and are differing from region to region. It is a veritable tower of babel and flowing off the handle when someone dares to use the wrong one is a sure-fire way to get a tech geek to just pack it in altogether.

Educating people means understanding that they do not know the same things that you do and if they do something wrong it is not because they are evil or stupid. Most of the time they are just not aware of their folly. Genuinely evil people are very scarce indeed and you can actually recognize them either by the lightning coming out of their hands or by them stroking a big white cat and sitting in underground volcano lairs.

A problem of attention span. Err, what?

Ok, this goes down two ways:

Geeks don’t want to hear about the problem, they love to remove barriers to reach a solution. The social and anthropological and - especially - the political and procedural aspects of the issue are lost on them. You can get a geek to spend sleepless nights removing a 2 pixel difference of layouts across browsers but you lost them in the second you start “let me tell you who I have to talk to about this…”. Bear that in mind, when you ask for solutions.

The other side of that is that non-technical people don’t really care much for hearing about why something is technically not possible. After all those tech guys all know their stuff, right? Installing a new video card is technically the same problem as fixing a broken web site, right? Well, they’re not and the best way to not get them to do something for you is show an immense non-interest in the technical parts of the solution.

Even if half of what your geek or non-geek counterpart tells you is mayan to you, just roll with it. Both of you are very proud of what you do - show interest and don’t ever - and I mean ever - ask for the same solution twice. If you put effort in and the other half doesn’t quite want to learn or take it in there is not much chance you’ll work together for long or even fruitfully at all.

A problem of adoption speed

This is a real issue in accessibility. Most people talking about assistive technology will tell you that Internet Explorer 6 with Windows is the only way to make Jaws behave. This is mostly because of these people having had quite a hard time to install the whole thing from the start and are not very likely to go through the process again.

Geeks on the other hand had to do that a lot more times (mostly cause people asked them to install their computers - they are technical after all) and moved on. Geeks understand that upgrading a system is the only way to keep it safe and fun to play with. I am fully aware that there is also a financial problem there, but there is just no way we can make accessibility even be a small blip on the radar of developers if we keep ourselves in the dark ages.

Check out the Universal Access features of Mac OS X and see what can be done with an operating system out of the box. Geeks love new stuff and will not look back. Even if the problem persists, make sure you know what is out there and what can be of interest rather than putting a new coat of paint on a car that should have been junked ages ago.

A problem of selling the issue

Last but not least there is the problem of selling the issue to another. Right now we do this by either scaring people into having to care about accessibility (”You will be sued!”) or by not caring about it - really - and looking for quick solutions to get it out of the way. Both are very short-term measurements and will not help anybody in the long run.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (welcome to the cliché festival) and if we want to make accessibility interesting we need to make it fun, interesting, marry it with bleeding edge technology and most of all - a starting point and not an afterthought.

Alright then, off you go - talk!