Accessibility debates, more harm than good!

Paul Boag

There is a growing rift between web designers over the issue of accessibility. Three camps exist, those who believe accessibility is about disability, those who believe it is broader than that and those who really do not care either way. As normal, my position is a foot in two camps.

There is currently a virtual fistfight ensuing between numerous well-respected figures in the accessibility community that represents of a wider gulf that is emerging between web designers.

The two positions taken are as follows:

Accessibility is about the disabled

Many believe that web accessibility is entirely about meeting the needs of disabled people. It is about helping those who have no control over how they access web sites because of some physical or concoctive disability. These developers believe that if people chose to use incompatible software, whilst there are compatible options available, then this does not constitute an accessibility issue.

Accessibility is not just about the disabled

The other side of the argument is that accessibility is not "just" or even "primarily" about people with disabilities. Rather, it is about going to all reasonable lengths to ensure the widest possible access to information you provide on your site.

Feet in two camps

With fear and trepidation, I would like to wade into the middle of the debate by suggesting that the pragmatic and socially responsible approach lies somewhere in between.

Socially responsible

I believe that accessibility should be about more than meeting the needs of disabled users. It should certainly extend beyond the sometimes-limiting checkpoints of the WAI guidelines.

I do not believe we can always expect users to upgrade or change their browser options simply because it is theoretically possible. As web designers, we work with computers and browsers all the time. It is easy therefore to forget that the majority of people do not know how to upgrade their browsers or even change their default settings. Hell, many of them have trouble completing online forms! Even if they do, there are many environments where that option is unavailable to them such as in some corporate offices or in a public library where configuration is limited or non-existent.


After saying all of that you have to draw the line somewhere. The real world, with limited timescales, and finite budgets, does not allow you to develop around every browser bug or accommodate every possible limitation. In the real world, you have to worry about return on investment. Is it worth 2 weeks work to get your site working successfully on a Mac when your selling a product that only runs under windows? Is it worth making sure your site works with screen readers when you are offering driving lessons? In some situations the answer to both those questions could actually be yes, but what you need to ask yourself is how often is that the case. In addition, some functionality is just impossible to reproduce in an entirely accessible format. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is impossible to make a site entirely accessible anyway. We need to resign ourselves to the fact that accessibility is full of grey areas and we have to endeavour to do the best we can with the resources available to us. We need to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Don’t forget the third camp

At the beginning of this entry, I mentioned three camps. It is important to remember that there is a huge number of web site owners out there that have not faced up to the issue of web site accessibility at all. Arguments like this can just make an intimidating subject even more so. In my opinion, taking one-step into the world of accessibility is better than doing nothing at all. If all you do is ensure your site runs in a browser other than internet explorer or that colour-blind people can still read your copy then that has more value than all the endless theoretic debates in the world.