W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > w3c-wai-gl@w3.org > April to June 2001

can accessibility be distinguished from usability? (was Re: 4/26 WCAG meeting minutes)

From: gregory j. rosmaita <oedipus@hicom.net>
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2001 16:48:45 -0400
Message-ID: <001e01c0cf5b$74db0c20$7bb6f5d0@igor>
To: <mcmay@bestkungfu.com>
Cc: "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
aloha, matt!

first of all, i'm glad to hear that, despite it all, you're still smiling --
and still participating in WAI!

you wrote:

I'm of the school that accessibility is in a huge overlapping circle with
usability. I've chatted with Steven Pemberton, who's working on creating a
usability interest group, and I really think that should end up at working
group level specifically so we can feed off one another.

i, as i think you know, am a vociferous proponent of the idea that there is
such a broad intersection between accessibility and usability that either
one is a sub-set of the other, or that they are, in reality, one and the
same...  or, rather, that accessibility--while dealing with immutables, such
as an individual's inability to see, to hear, or to process more than N
objects at one time--is merely an expression of specific/special case
usability...  in many ways, any attempt to bifurcate usability and
accessiblity is futile--is there a discrete break-point where the two
diverge?  and if there is, isn't it different for every single individual?
does it even matter?  if i can't use something, such as the visually
displayed caller ID feature on a mobile phone, because the information is
available only in a single modality, the bottom line is that i can't use
it...  if i don't know the alphabetic overlay to the telephone keypad, and
i'm given a phone number--such as 1-800-WAI-TO-GO--in words alone, my
inability to call the phone number is, in my opinion, a usability, and not
an accessibility problem...  yes, my inability to process visual stimuli is
what keeps me from being able to visually associate the letters with the
corresponding numbers on the keypad, but the real root of the problem is
that the information (in this case, the phone number) was delivered in a
single, modality dependent form...  and, just as the use of mnemonics to
facilitate retention of the phone number can be classified as both an
accessibility and a usability aid, so too can one classify the failure to
provide an expansion for the mnemonic aid which is used as the sole means of
conveying core information as both a usability and an accessibility
problem...  i'm struck by the parallel with the "illustrate your pages"
debate--i understand the why, and as someone who was an extremely visually
oriented individual for the first 20 years of my existence, understand that,
in many ways, a picture is often worth a thousand words, but i am inflexible
when it comes to the how...  my philosophy basically boils down to this:
whenever you include technology, software, or modality dependent content,
provide equivalent content and/or functionality where required and, in one's
best judgement, wherever "appropriate"--an admittedly nebulous and
subjective concept which nevertheless respects the author's right to employ
null alternative content when, for example, spacer GIFs are used in an
attempt to control layout, and for some classes of scripts...

no solution that purports to address accessibility can avoid addressing
usability... to do so would be akin (in the bricks and mortar world) to
providing an access ramp to a building whose innards are inaccessible, while
arguing that, since there aren't elevators available for anyone who enters
the building, installing ADA-compliant elevators in the building isn't
really an accessibility problem--it's a usability problem because everyone
who enters the building has to take the stairs if they want to leave the
ground floor, and hence the hardship hits everyone equally... no, that's too
much of a straw man, and stairs DO pose a number of unequal hardships...
a better analogy is the same building, only this time with accessible
but no bathroom facilities whatsoever--a source of a universal hardship,
no doubt, discomfort...  are the lack of bathrooms a usability or
problem?  does the lack of bathrooms moot the question of whether the
bathrooms must/should be accessible?  and just what constitutes an
bathroom?  to me, talking infrared signage--which would endow me with
something a bit more sanitary than the tactile/olfactory means "natively
available" for locating, and differentiating between, the sink, the urinal,
wastebin, etc.--is as important a component of an accessible bathroom as are
ADA-compliant toilets and sinks...

i am, however, heartened by the launch of the Quality Assurance &
Conformance (QA) activity at the W3C--consult <http://www.w3.org/QA/> for
more information...   as evinced by the position paper i submitted to the
first QA workshop earlier this month, and which still lives at
<http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/temp/w3c/qa/gjr_qa_pp.html>, i perceive the
QA activity as a means of fully and irrevocably integrating WAI's work (as
as that on device independence and internationalization) into the warp and
of the W3C--not just in the documents it creates and philosophy it expounds,
but in all of the materials it produces ("eating our own dog food", as it

i encourage all GL WG members (and all w3c-wai-gl lurkers) to investigate
and become involved in the emerging QA activity, as well as the Device
Independence (DI) activity, whose home page can be found at
and the Semantic Web Activity
all of which will impact our work greatly...  it is up to us as a working
group to ensure that our work impacts theirs, so that when the cry of "it's
a usability and not an accessibility issue" arises in the future, we can
address the concern by pointing to stable, normative references--such as
the "User Agent Usability Guidelines" or the "Web Content Usability
Guidelines" in the manner that the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines
point to WCAG...  obviously, it is equally as essential that WAI
participants also participate in shaping any such usability guidelines...

personally, i'd like to "see" a single guidelines activity be developed
under the W3C's aegis which would produce guidelines documents that address
usability, interoperability, internationalization, and accessibility issues
as a cohesive whole, but that's a rant for another post...

PEDESTRIAN, n. The variable (and audible) part of the roadway for an
automobile.              -- Ambrose Bierce, _The Devil's Dictionary_
             Gregory J. Rosmaita, oedipus@hicom.net
          Camera Obscura: http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/
      VICUG NYC: http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/vicug/index.html
  Read 'Em & Speak: http://www.hicom.net/~oedipus/books/index.html
Received on Friday, 27 April 2001 16:47:48 UTC

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