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A brief examination of purpose.

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Fri, 17 Aug 2001 15:12:44 -0700
To: "WAI Guidelines WG" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>

Here are a few thoughts, expressed as simply and clearly as I am able to
express them:

1. There is no right to accessibility per se. There is a right to
participate in society. There is a right to have a say in those things that
affect us. Accessibility is simply a means to these ends. I cannot
participate if I am locked out. Let's not forget what we are really after:
equal participation.

2. There are no people with disabilities. There are only people, all of whom
have some degree of ability/disability, usually varying widely throughout
life and across the population. We are not concerned here with promoting the
rights of people with disabilities. We are concerned with promoting the
rights of people WITHOUT REGARD TO DISABILITY. There is a difference.

3. Equal participation is not the same thing as full participation by all.
There was a concert in town last week that I really wanted to see, but I had
other obligations. Should the concert promoters have postponed the concert
until I was available? Full participation is neither possible nor desirable.
One way to increase participation would be to create a monoculture in which
everyone spoke the same language (with the same degree of fluency), had the
same abilities, did the same jobs, wore the same clothes, etc. Is this
desirable? I think not.

4. "Accessibility" is the ability to get access to information.
Accessibility has nothing particularly to do with people with disabilities,
except that they have been denied access more often than others. But that is
a political issue, not a technical issue. (Personally, I'd like to pull the
politics out of the guidelines, which is one reason I resist those phrases
that smack of advocacy to me.)

5. "Comprehensibility" is the ability to comprehend that information once it
has been accessed.

6. The WCAG seems to be changing from a document concerned with
accessibility, to one that attempts to address both accessibility and

7. Accessibility is largely under the control of the Web site developer.
Comprehensibility is not. I can write my code a certain way and be
reasonably sure that it is accessible to everyone. I can also test this
using different browsers, operating systems, etc. But the best I can do with
regard to comprehensibility is test my content on sample groups of people.
To really ensure that material is comprehensible, I have to interact with
the user, just as a teacher lecturing to a group of students cannot be sure
that they have understood the material until test time (and even then, maybe

8. Making sites accessible -- in general -- eliminates duplication. By
coding my pages properly, I can have one source of content which works well
on many browsers (instead of the old method of making one version for
Netscape, one for IE, and to heck with the rest). Yes, I can use server-side
(or client-side) transformation to present multiple views of that content,
but it's still only ONE SET OF CONTENT.

9. Making sites comprehensible -- at least as far as WCAG is concerned --
seems to consist of making multiple versions of content. Call it the
"shotgun" approach to comprehensibility. Worse, the skills required to
"ensure" comprehensibility of content go beyond those of the average Web
site developer. Creating multiple versions also involves significantly more
time, effort, and money. The effect of this may be to DISCOURAGE
participation -- to lock out all but those entities with deep pockets. If
forced to comply, commercial sites will. Non-commercial sites will simply go
out of business. This group needs to think hard about the possible
consequences of demanding total comprehensibility before we head too far
down that path. Equal participation demands that the needs of content
providers be considered, too.

10. We are making guidelines, not laws. We cannot enforce compliance, NOR
WOULD THAT BE DESIRABLE. The whole point of guidelines is that people can
take 'em or leave 'em. Partial conformity is GOOD. The idea here is to
encourage people to make sites accessible (and comprehensible) UNLESS there
are compelling reasons to do otherwise. And there WILL BE compelling reasons
to do otherwise.

Some sites -- namely, government and commercial sites -- MUST be made
accessible and as comprehensible as is reasonably possible, but that is not
the task of our guidelines. Such regulation is properly performed by
governments (with the consent of the governed, one would hope). Just as
Section 508 implemented parts (but not all) of WCAG 1.0, we can look to
government to refine accessibility regulations to address some (but not all)
of the concerns expressed in WCAG 2.0.

For this reason, I am satisfied that the current document does a good job of
promoting accessibility/comprehensibility. This group has done a remarkable
job of finding a difficult balance between not going far enough and going
too far.

11. Partial compliance is better than no compliance. We should beware of
making users think that the Guidelines are an all or nothing proposition.
Instead, we should encourage developers to comply with as many checkpoints
as is reasonably possible. We should acknowledge that time, money, or
ability constraints may make full compliance unreasonable.

There is a resistance to this in this group because of a very reasonable
fear that many sites will then abuse the guidelines to give themselves an
appearance of compliance without really adhering to their spirit. THERE IS
NO WAY TO AVOID THIS. Give up. If you want to enforce compliance, go to the
government and petition for regulations. That is the ONLY way, short of
massive protest, that you will get many organizations to comply. THEY DON'T

On the other hand, if we admit that our guidelines are just that:
guidelines, and we encourage full compliance but accept partial compliance
as a reasonable compromise, then we will most likely achieve a much higher
level of compliance than we will by insisting upon full compliance.
Accessibility is not an either/or proposition.

12. The guidelines are about ACHIEVING accessibility, not about PROMOTING
accessibility. Mixing explanation with advocacy only muddles the guidelines.
Much of the difficulty this group has had with expressing ideas clearly
stems from muddled motives, IMO. Stop telling people WHY they should make
their sites accessible and focus on telling them HOW.

This is not to say that promoting accessibility is wrong, nor that we should
not include the benefits of taking an action as part of our explanation. But
listing benefits and SELLING them are two different things. There is a place
and a time for promotion, and it is NOT in the guidelines. If we mix the
two, we run the risk of alienating users who just want to make their sites
reasonably accessible without hearing a sales pitch. Worse, we come across
as preachers or as teachers.

I'm all for preaching the gospel of accessibility, but I hope we can all
agree that the guidelines are not the place for preaching.

Teaching is a bit more slippery. What could be wrong with teaching? Well, in
my experience the quickest way to alienate a Web site owner/designer is to
offer to teach her something. These people view themselves as "experts." To
become students again, they must step down into a subordinate role. That is

Anyone who has worked with training for adults understands this distinction.
There is a difference between training and teaching. Kids are taught. Adults
are trained. Teaching implies a vertical relationship with teacher on top
and student below. Training implies a lateral transmission, with trainer and
trainee equal.

When we start asking questions that sound like they're intended for
children, we are "teaching." I guarantee you that many adults will find this
style offensive. When we present information clearly and simply and let the
reader make his own decisions, we're "training." No loss of status is

I can't stress this strongly enough. Frankly, I don't believe in teaching at
all, not even for children. I prefer to speak to children with the same tone
and level of attention I use for adults. I may speak simply, but I don't
"dumb it down" for them. I find that children respond very well to this. My
three-year-old niece has been raised in this environment, and she has no
trouble at all identifying the patronizing tone so often used in "teaching."
When approached by an adult in this manner, she immediately asserts herself:
"Don't talk to me like that! I don't like it!" And well she shouldn't.

Some of the above are facts, some are opinions. I don't expect everyone to
agree with me, but I hope that by elucidating these ideas, I've stimulated
thought about our task and our motives.

With this in mind, can we reread our document with a critical eye and, as
Faulkner said, "Kill all [our] darlings"? Let's run v.2 through a sieve and
sift out anything that doesn't directly address the HOW of making a site
accessible. While we're at it, let's examine our tone and make sure that it
is appropriate for our audience. Let us assume that people will read our
document because they WANT to make their sites accessible. Let us NOT assume
that our readers have to be wrestled into conformity with sticks and

Hope this helps.

Chas. Munat
Received on Friday, 17 August 2001 18:10:28 UTC

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