The language of accessibility
While I was in Berlin for the BIENE awards, I found myself thinking a lot about language and meaning… as one does when one is in a foreign country.
First of all, I think I may have inadvertently insulted my fellow jury members, and just about everyone else I came into contact with, by continuously using the familiar, rather than the polite form. I never could figure out when to use “du” and when to use “sie”, so I’ve always just stuck with “du.”
Secondly, I was thinking about the German word being used to describe accessibility: “Barrierefreiheit”, literally “free from obstacles.” It’s a good word, but because it’s describes websites by what they don’t contain (obstacles), it leads to a different way of thinking about the topic.
In English, it’s relatively easy to qualify the word “accessible.” We can talk about sites being “quite accessible”, “fairly accessible”, or “very accessible”. But if you define accessibility as a lack of obstacles, then as long as a single obstacle remains in place it’s hard to use the word “barrierefrei” as an adjective. The term is too binary; black or white; yes or no.
Thinking further along these lines, I realised that English is not without its problems in this regard. Consider for a minute the term “making a website accessible.” There’s an implication there that accessibility is something that needs to be actively added, something that requires an expenditure of energy and therefore money.
The BIENE awards ceremony began with some words of wisdom from Johnny Haeusler, the German of equivalent of Jason Kottke and Tom Coates rolled into one:
In der realen Welt steht fast immer die Frage im Mittelpunkt, was wir tun müssen, um Menschen mit Behinderung zu integrieren. Im Internet müssen wir umdenken und fragen, was wir tun müssen, um niemanden auszuschließen – und dabei spielt die Barrierefreiheit eine zentrale Rolle.
In the real world, we’re almost always asking what we can do to include handicapped people. On the Internet, we need to rethink this question and ask what we can do so that we don’t shut anybody out—and accessibility plays a central role in that.
This highlights a really important point: good markup is accessible by default. As long as you’re using HTML elements in a semantically meaningful way—which you should be doing anyway, without even thinking about accessibility—then your documents will be accessible to begin with. It’s only through other additions—visual presentation, behaviour, etc.—that accessibility is removed.
Far from being something that is added to a site, accessibility is something we need to ensure isn’t removed. From that perspective, the phrase “making a site accessible” isn’t accurate.
Just as “progressive enhancement” sounds better than “graceful degradation”, talking about accessibility as something that needs to be added onto a website isn’t doing us any favours. Accessibility is not a plug-in. It’s not something that can be bolted onto a site after the fact. So here’s what I’m proposing:
From now on, instead of talking about making a site accessible, I’m going to talk about keeping a site accessible.