CANVAS, accessibility, appropriateness

It’s good to have Web content available to the widest range of people — to not turn people away because of their operating system or browser brand, or because of physical differences such as visual acuity or motor-skill difficulties.

In the Flash world we’ve been dealing with this inclusiveness issue for a long time — figuring out how to improve the economics of providing a multi-modal experience — and recently there have been exciting improvements in tasks such as captioning video. Still, the objection “but Flash isn’t accessible” is often used when someone wants to nix your project.

Here’s a different perspective on that “must be accessible” priority… David Baron of Mozilla, in “Web Accessibility as a Political Movement” responds to those who wonder why so many of the projects labeled as “HTML5″ do not seem to be attending to the needs of diverse audiences. This is part of a lengthier conversation on the CANVAS tag and its use.

Here’s one argument, which you may have seen in different form before: “Existing disability law, for example, might require installation of wheelchair ramps in places of ‘public accommodation,’ but doesn’t require them to be installed in everybody’s houses. Likewise, I would expect an online form on a government Web site that is required to visit the United States to be usable by blind people, and likewise expect good alternative text for an image on a government Web site describing how a bill becomes law. Yet I would not expect a bunch of photos that John Smith shares with a few friends on a Web site to be required to have reasonable alternative text. In other words, content on the Web varies widely in importance and amount of use. Yet some accessibility advocates insist that even John Smith posting a few photos online must be forced to provide equivalent alternative text to replace the photos.”

There’s also acknowledgment that purely idealistic positions may be difficult when brought into reality in the world: “Web accessibility involves tradeoffs, such as between burdens on those who send information and burdens on those who receive it. Sensible choices along this spectrum can vary depending on how the Web is being used; there’s a big difference between publishing to an audience of five (that might be larger later, if you happen to succeed) and publishing to an audience already known to be in the millions.”

Both of these emphasize the need to look at the total situation, and that a particular stance may not apply to every case… far from the usual absolutism of “but it’s ‘proprietary’“.

I’m not sure I agree with his entire position though… sections like these seem to go too far: “I think the attitude that evil Web authors need to be forced to care about accessibility leads to technically worse solutions that require more work for authors and leave the Web less accessible to disabled users as a result… I think this community is in significant danger of being taken over by, or at least best known by, those within it who espouse such extreme positions that they risk causing the entire community to be ignored.”

Read it yourself, figure out how you feel about it… accessibility is definitely an area in which we need to encourage better practices, but bringing that about is the hard part. I just found it refreshing that someone at Mozilla emphasized how pragmatism and idealism must necessarily balance each other.

There’s one more wrinkle about “accessibility”: the concept applies not just to differences in physical capability, but also intellectual capability, language, and cultural differences. Text itself imposes cognitive and language-skill restrictions (my own text here is discriminatory!). But imagery, animation and video all reach a wider range of people in the world than text alone can. It’s hard to craft a message which reaches every potential audience member, but “rich media” should definitely be one tool in our toolbox when attempting to do so.