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Let’s talk and teach, not fight, about accessibility

A mini-vacation and some random negative tweets stirred some dusty brain cells this week. As a result, I want to make a constructive call to action.

Let’s work on constructive and positive approaches to spreading accessibility awareness everywhere.

This is not being cheesy and cutesy. I’m not bringing out the unicorns and rainbows, even though they can correct accessibility errors in one sprinkling of fairy dust.

The background

Somewhere at the end of 2008 or beginning of 2009, I saw Chris Heilman make a similar call. He said something about making positive changes. He proposed that we stop (negative) rants about some inaccessible something. Instead, he suggested taking constructive action. I took that to heart. I recall coming across a website for some spinal injury organization that had a useful-sounding brochure on exercises for people who had spine problems. The brochure was a PDF and it was inaccessible. I immediately wrote to them and suggested that they make the PDF accessible. I never heard from them. That didn’t stop me. Only time stops me, especially when I make such discoveries on a tangent to a tangent to what I was in the process of doing!

Since then, the marvelous volunteers in the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) have produced a sort of fairy dust. They made templates for how to contact organizations about inaccessible websites. Just brilliant. (I wrote about the efforts of EOWG and several others recently.)

Now and then, discussions pop up in social media about negative versus positive in the process of making the web truly universal and accessible. Such a discussion popped up yesterday on Twitter and jiggled the memory of Chris’ old call to action. I sent a tweet to Chris yesterday, asking about the source of such a statement. Chris’ links led to some awesome resources I had forgotten. That man has a passionate way with words on technology and accessibility. That’s why I stalk him, uh, follow him on Twitter, even though I am not a web developer. (At least I can comprehend the funny videos he shares from time to time!)

Chris Heilman’s awesome must-read articles

I may not have found the exact quote I was looking for, but I found two articles that I hope people will read and ponder.

The Finite Incatatem has a passage I thought worth highlighting here:

Our job now is to get out of our own little world and educate the world about accessibility and the issues bad web development and design causes. We don’t do a good job with this as we always try to excuse ourselves by saying that we don’t understand technology and its ins and outs. The point is though that as someone who advocates accessibility you don’t need to know everything but all you need to do is to listen, collaborate and communicate with the right people in the right format.

Last year’s Paris Web conference had a great example of Aurelien Levy and Stephane Deschamps showing and teaching accessibility by explaining the problems using magic tricks and making people from the audience experience the issues by blindfolding them or only allowing them to use one hand to use interfaces. This is what we need to do more – bring the human aspect into our presentations and trainings instead of banging on about guidelines and laws and minute technological solutions.

Note the phrase “all you need to do is to listen, collaborate and communicate with the right people in the right format”. Note that “listen” comes first!

We must also remember that teaching is hard, as Chris states elsewhere in that speech. That is because “it not only means transferring knowledge but also changing mindsets. And that is something we have to do if we want to make this accessibility thing work.”

That’s is why communication is on par with knowing code. Changing mindsets can be just as tricky, if not more so, than wrangling HTML code in any way, shape, or form! This communication theme continues from the 2008 presentation where Chris said that “the main problem is that we just don’t talk to each other the right way. AND we communicate with the wrong means in the wrong manner.”

This shouldn’t be the case for technical communicators, right? We know how to communicate correctly, right?

While digging through Chris’ old blog posts, I read a blog post somewhere else. I think it fits nicely into this discussion. Mark Baker discusses technical communicators and respect – a respect that many think is always just out of reach. He distinguishes between one-of-them respect versus one-of-us respect. Accessibility is about removing barriers, yet many of us are quite good at building and maintaining barriers in our work. Mark’s post provides an interesting and useful little wake-up call.

Do we want to win arguments or solve a problem?

A newer post from Chris continues some of his older posts and presents a challenge for 2012. He discusses a winter of discontent for web design, but I think his points apply to those preaching accessibility regardless of whether they code, write, or design.

What about my call to action?

I don’t have a spinal injury, yet I took action when I encountered a problem on that website I mentioned previously. I was professionally aware that there was a problem, and I felt that knowledge came with a responsibility. I think more of us can do this. If in doubt, discuss the issue with friends and colleagues, or turn to the resources I mentioned at EOWG. During elections, you always hear how your vote counts. Well, the same applies here. Your accessibility efforts do count.

Other people have bigger access barriers to the web than I do. Far bigger barriers. I can sympathize with their frustration. Realizing what they experience – well, I’d be outraged and furious. Especially if I felt I was all alone with my troubles. That’s why we need to work together. We can learn from each other and support each other in this project. I’ve done my share of mocking and scorning inaccessible sites. Nothing constructive comes out of that, however.

Write to a site when you discover they lack correct (or any) alt text on images. Bit by bit, we can fix this place. Let’s do it in a constructive and positive spirit. If they fight back and resist your suggestions, use intelligence to counter that. Fight back, but with honey and constructive ideas. Be kind and polite when you vocally take your business elsewhere. You who master words – you know it can be done! Let’s do this!

PS UPDATE: Obviously, I’m giving credit to Chris for his inspiration made-to-stick a few years ago. However, the tipping point or nudge to write this comes from Jennifer Sutton. Thank you, Jennifer!


  1. […] Christain Heliman Christain Heliman is principal technical evangelist at Mozilla. The following article was inspired by some of Christian’s 2008/9 presentations Let’s talk and teach, not fight, about accessibility […]

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