Yes, people did wander the earth when there was no Facebook, no Google and no World Wide Web. I can’t say I remember it well but I was certainly there. I lived through the invention of the web, its enormous growth, its unprecedented speed of development and its current ubiquitousness in the developed world, so, do I have any insights?

Equal access to the web and all it’s riches is now a requisite for full citizenship. An inaccessible website is a barrier to equality (however you define that) not just a barrier to content and functionality. So for the purposes of this article – have I looked for any lessons we can learn about ensuring the Internet isn’t just one more way to discriminate against disabled people?

One thing I would say that I have witnessed is the on-going tension between the crave for newness, for wizzyness, for more novel ways to communicate and the need to ensure that each new thing doesn’t disenfranchised certain individuals. Granted, it’s not just about technology and access barriers could be a number of things but will include impairment, poverty and access to education.

Why is accessibility not just built-in?

I would go so far as to say that it is impossible for both new developments and equal access to be aligned; the issue of access will always be a ‘post development’ pressure rather than a built-in part of the original specification. Everyone likes new things; disabled people like new things no less than non-disabled people. New things tend to happen fast; at the speed of thought. Consideration of accessibility tends to take longer.

In fact it could probably be argued that the single minded pursuit of a particular goal, that leads to the latest new thing, is a prerequisite for the development of that new thing. The fact that the developers are unaware of issues surrounding accessibility isn’t a flaw but a requirement. It doesn’t make them bad people – it just means we need a mechanism to ensure that that this doesn’t lead to discrimination and inequality.

So the reality is that people like me, i.e. developers who want to make the web more accessible are always trying to catch up by ‘fixing’ websites that already exist rather than helping developers build accessible websites in the first place. Of course I would rather that accessibility was also considered right at the start of of every website development; that it be built-in by default; but given that there is still a huge lack of awareness, rather than just a lack of desire, I don’t believe it’s going to happen any time soon.

Enough of the doom and gloom: where has it all gone right?

On the other side of the equation, a vast number of those who maintain and make the web do have a social conscience and come from a tradition of openness and sharing. This means that for a huge number of disabled people it has been possible to participate in the revolution that is the World Wide Web not only have they participated but they have been enabled by it. It has made communication easier and access to content and services more democratic.

Tim Berners-Lee who was the inventor of the web set the tone; his belief was being the web should to be be free, that it should be open and it should be accessible. The basic technologies and standards that he, and those who followed on from him, developed are its huge strength.

It was, and remains, this basic approach and impulse for fairness that has led to the development of accessibility standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). And in the last few years, the many HTML frameworks (for building websites) the have been developed with accessibility features built-in. So yes we are always trying to make website more accessible and increase access for disabled people but our starting point could be a lot worse.

Accessibility was built in from the start in as much as it is at heart a technology based on text (every HTML document is just a text document). Principally this was so that HTML documents would work easily on any bit of hardware and any bit of software because the barriers to understanding such documents are so low.

It’s not hard to read a text based HTML document and display its content on a screen, on a printer, on a braille display or have it read out by a screen reader. It is this accessibility to machines that has the consequence of the Web largely being a technology that is accessible to humans.

So what have I learned? Well, I’ve learned we are always trying to catchup when it comes to making websites accessible – and that’s not good because it means disabled people face discrimination. However, I’ve also learned that the invention of the World Wide Web has been transformational for disabled people and has equalised access to content, services and opportunities. Nonetheless, for many people there still exists a gap between the potential for this transformation and the reality.

Inequalities on the web reflect inequalities off the web

The things that might narrow that gap are legislation that outlaws discrimination (this needs to be enforced – it isn’t at the moment); education to increase awareness and skills and the unequal distribution of resources in society. Some people don’t have a computer or Internet access or an income that would allow them to pay for these tools.

The most important thing I’ve learned is the most difficult things to solve are not related to technology but social. It’s the barriers designed to maintain existing social and economic inequalities (i.e. the factors that shape life chances such as: poverty, education and social class). It doesn’t matter so much that a website is inaccessible when you don’t own a computer and you don’t have access to the web. Perhaps you have these things but you can’t afford to purchase the access technologies you need.

These societal factors also have an impact on the the web and the related technology. There are not enough disabled people in positions of power to effect the priorities and agenda when it comes to developing new things, that is those new things I mentioned earlier that tend to be inaccessible by default.

If those responsible for websites and the development of ‘new things’ had the necessary awareness and desire then it is much more likely that accessibility would be part of every project specification.

Jim Byrne

Contact me If you value experience and unrivaled technical know-how. Do you need an accessibility audit of your website or documestn or a new beautiful responsive, accessible website?

Get in touch. Tel: 07810 098119.

Website Designer Glasgow

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Working with non-profits, charities, voluntary and public sector organisations and social enterprises for over 20 years. Jim set up one of the worlds first website accessibility web agencies in the mid 1990s.