Pragmatica11y: A New Approach to Web Accessibility – Learning to Let Go

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Pragmatica11y with Denis BoudreauIn last month’s post, I discussed the need to take a step back in the way we advocate for inclusion so the community of people who build websites would enjoy more breathing room when it came to implementing Web accessibility best practices in their work.

This post is about forgetting what we want for a minute and thinking about what designers and developers want, about being empathetic to the reality and pressure these people are under when they create websites, about trusting that they actually mean to do well. This post is about acknowledging that the majority of people who build websites take pride in “a job well done”, and assuming their definition of a job well done includes building websites for all users.

It’s all about showing them the way, rather than forcing them to pave the cowpath. I say, if we start trusting these men and women to come up with accessible solutions in their design and code, well… They. Just. Might. The human mind does not innovate by mindlessly reproducing patterns that have already been defined a thousand times over; it innovates by going off the beaten track, guided by the knowledge that has already been defined a thousand times over. By exploring new grounds. By pushing the limits. This is also how new accessibility techniques are created.

Obviously, not being clueless about assistive technology and accessibility guidelines helps when it comes to creating websites that are actually usable by people with disabilities and various assistive technologies. But if we cut developers and designers some slack, if we trust them with the results, they would be more likely to have an open mind about web accessibility. Rather than simply trying to adapt their design or coding practices to whatever whims or seemingly dogmatic expectations the accessibility experts set for them, this newfound freedom could foster inclusive, innovative solutions. I like to think we could be pleasantly surprised.

We the accessibility community are part of the problem every time we teach developers and designers about Success Criteria rather than typical use cases and accessibility barriers encountered by real end users.

While our intentions are noble and pure, the tools we currently use to turn these intentions into reality are boring designers and developers out of their skulls on a daily basis. No one likes to be told what to do – especially creative people. What they want is for us to inspire and challenge them and to appeal to their creativity. That’s what they’re good at.

We the accessibility community are part of the problem every time we teach developers and designers about Success Criteria rather than typical use cases and accessibility barriers encountered by real end users. We are part of that problem whenever we invoke the Holy Writs of SC 1.1.1 for images with missing alts, or SC 1.3.1 for pages with poorly structured headings. We are part of that problem every time our response to poor luminosity contrast rhymes with SC 1.4.3 and 4.5 to 1 ratios.

It looks as though the accessibility community has been so concerned with making the Web a better place for people with disabilities that, at some level, we stopped being on the lookout for innovative solutions to digital inclusion problems. Instead, we’ve grown to worship guidelines and techniques created to make web content accessible, forgetting these guidelines were never meant to be more than that. Forgetting the WCAG 2.0 techniques are only some of the ways in which guidelines can be met and that, besides the techniques provided for WCAG 2.0, there may very well be other techniques that can be used to implement conformance to WCAG 2.0 – techniques we haven’t invented yet.

More importantly, we lost track of the underlying principles behind these guidelines. Sure we talk about POUR all the time, but to say what, really? Instead of instilling the principles of perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness into what we teach designers and developers, we talk about rules with numbers no one but a very few can remember and techniques drawn from documents that that none of them ever read and that span well beyond thousands of printed pages. Again, we are so close to the trees that we lose sight of the forest.

My proposal is to go back to these four principles, which are the very essence of web accessibility. To me, this is a fundamental aspect of the pragmatic approach to web accessibility. Instead of boring people to death with Success Criteria and Techniques, let’s inspire them with the principles. Let’s turn them into allies. Let’s trust their creativity. Let’s trust them to innovate. Let’s make sure they really understand what these founding principles mean. What they stand for. The benefits they truly bring to end users.

Restore some of their freedom and watch them create interfaces with these principles in mind. I’ll bet you a drink the results will be far more accessible than they currently are. And they might even begin to take pride into the accessible stuff they build. Isn’t that exactly what we’re after?

Denis Boudreau

Denis is a Web accessibility consultant working for Deque Systems from Montreal, Canada. He has been helping organizations of all sizes build a better, more accessible Web for everyone since 2000.Pragmatica11y will be posting on the first Tuesday of every month.  

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Denis Boudreau is a Principal Web Accessibility Consultant, Strategist and Trainer at Deque. He's a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in the Education and Outreach Working Group, advocating social inclusion on the Web. Denis runs the a11yMTL monthly meetings and annual conference in Montreal, and is obsessed with UX and digital inclusion. He's especially passionate about design that's both engaging and accessible to everyone.


  • Denis Boudreau Permalink

    Thank you Anna Belle, this is great feedback. I’m happy to hear that it hits the spot. I’m sure we’ll have many chances to discuss strategies within EOWG in the upcoming months. :)

  • Anna Belle Permalink

    I love the way you’ve framed this — particularly the first part. I’ve been a front-end developer for many years, and have always quietly tried to do what I can to support a11y. It’s only recently (thanks to Shawn) that I’ve gotten a voice. It’s so recent that my stance is still that of the developers you’re describing, i.e. heart in the right place, but only bits and pieces of ideas of how to do it and (sadly) almost no support.

    I’m not sure about the second part — i.e. the strategy for getting past this barrier. But I believe that if we have the intention to connect with them and what they most need, better strategies will unfold.

  • | Denis Boudreau Suggests A New Approach to Web Accessibility | Accessibility NZ Permalink

    […] Boudreau just proposed A New Approach to Web Accessibility – Learning to Let Go. In effect, he suggests that accessibility advocate stop discussing success criterion and focus […]

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