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

Functional equivalents vs. descriptions

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2001 03:13:21 -0700
To: "WAI Guidelines WG" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
Kynn Bartlett wrote:
> Chaz, a hypothetical:
> I'm a graphic artist.  I work for a web development company.  My
> "art" is the specific visual design I craft and create for my clients.
> Likewise, I have my own personal site, which is an expression of my
> thoughts and feelings, in visual form.  The colors, the fonts, the
> graphics -- they're all chosen to represent some aspect of my soul.
> The minute you start changing those visual parameters, you've just
> made something which is *no longer my work of art*.  It is something
> else.  Because it's art, IS in its clearest and simplest form at
> time of creation, and *no equivalents are possible*.
> Right or wrong?



Art has no equivalent. But this is graphic art on a commercial site. As
such, it is commerce first, art second. The art is already being bent to
serve a commercial function. As such, we have a right to insist that that
commercial function be made accessible to all.

*** The art does not need an equivalent (indeed, none is possible), but the
COMMERCE FUNCTION OF THE ART *does* need an equivalent. ***  We also have a
right -- since this art has already been bent to commerce -- that it be bent
in such a way as to make that commercial function accessible to all. For
example, we can say that the color contrasts must be sufficient to make the
text legible to people with color blindness or low visual acuity.

Alan Flavell commented on this most eloquently in a recent post. In it, he
described a situation where an image on a site is used for marketing
purposes. Now, from the point of view of a user's right to PARTICIPATE IN
COMMERCE, this commercial (marketing) function must be reproduced in an
accessible form. THIS IS WHAT NEEDS AN EQUIVALENT. We do not need a
description of the image (although there's no problem with providing one for
the curious). We need an equivalent marketing message.

As for the art itself, all responses to it will be subjective. If I try to
provide an equivalent to the art, my equivalent will be quite different from
yours. Both will be more about our personal reactions to the art than about
the art itself.

So there is an OBJECTIVE function (which may or may not be effective). This
is the marketing message and this we can reproduce with some degree of
accuracy (I hope). Then there is the SUBJECTIVE response of the person who
views the image. This is unique to the individual and cannot be reproduced.

Each person who sees the Mona Lisa has a unique, subjective reaction to it.
To have this reaction, YOU MUST SEE THE PAINTING. A description of the
painting will not do, neither will a description of the effect it had on

So how to do a longdesc for the Mona Lisa? Well, assuming that longdesc
actually did something, here is how I would proceed:

First, what is the function of this reproduction of the Mona Lisa? If
Leonardo Da Vinci were alive and "painted" the Mona Lisa on-line, then I
would say no longdesc is needed. As an artist, LDV has no obligation to
explain himself or his art. He is engaging in freedom of expression, and
what he is expressing must be seen to be experienced (note that I did not
say "understood" as understanding will vary from individual to individual
and may in no instance be what Leonardo intended).

(Similarly, our graphic artist above has no obligation to provide
"equivalents" for the art on his personal site, since it's only function on
the site is the self-expression of the artist.)

If posted by the Louvre, then I would say that the function is two-fold: 1)
To allow viewers to have their own subjective experience. This, as I said,
cannot be duplicated. 2) To provide information about the Mona Lisa, for
example, the history of the painting, the controversy over her enigmatic
smile, etc.

Number 1 above is an INDIVIDUAL function. The experience of the Mona Lisa is
subjective and differs for each individual. Number 2 is a SOCIETAL function.
This function must be made available to ALL members of society equally
(whether they can appreciate it is again an individual matter).

Our goal is to allow the non-sighted visitor to gain the information
necessary to understand the SOCIETAL function of the Mona Lisa, i.e. the
role the Mona Lisa has played in history, literature, commerce, art, etc.
This can be accomplished by providing the information in 2) above, plus a
simple description of the painting.

So the longdesc for the Mona Lisa in this instance is really not difficult
at all: "A bust of a woman with a half-smile, etc."

Here is a third possibility: Suppose the Mona Lisa is used in commerce, as
in an advertisement that shows the Mona Lisa eating a slice of pizza. Here
we'd have to evaluate the COMMERCIAL function of the Mona Lisa. It is this
commercial function that we must reproduce in the "equivalent." Though this
may be difficult, it is necessary if we are to ensure equal participation by

So again, it is the function -- the role -- that the art plays that
determines whether an equivalent is required and, if so, what form that
equivalent should take. I would think that a description of the image itself
would rarely if ever play a major role in the "equivalent" (although, as I
said, it might be worth providing a simple one).


The problem, as I see it, is that we've gotten a bit carried away. We want
everyone to have access to the same *experiences*. This is simply not
possible (nor is it desirable in my mind). But there is a trade-off. We are
accustomed to thinking of blind people as "disabled." I prefer to think of
them as "differently-abled." No blind person (blind from birth) will ever
truly understand the awe I might feel upon viewing La Gioconda. But I will
never understand what it is like to be blind from birth. And as tough as we
make it for blind people in our society, biased as it is toward the sighted,
I must still presume that there are some amazing things perceived by those
who have never seen that will never be available to me poisoned as I am by

This sort of viewpoint has been most clearly articulated by the deaf
community in their reaction to cochlear implants. In deafness, something is
lost but something else is gained. We who have never experienced deafness,
blindness (or cognitive impairment) should not be so quick to assert our
superiority. We cannot know what deaf ears hear or blind eyes see.

THE GOAL IS JUSTICE, not sameness. What we are trying to accomplish here is
to provide guidelines that will allow everyone to participate equally
(though not fully) in the medium of the World Wide Web. When we reframe the
discussion in terms of justice, many of the most intractable problems simply

This is equally true for the cognitively disabled. No amount of graphics,
multimedia, exciting colors, music, etc. is ever going to make it possible
for a person with Down's Syndrome to grasp the Theory of Relativity the way
Einstein saw it (or even the way you or I see it). So what? I can't see it
the way Einstein saw it either. What is important here is:

1. That the cognitively disabled person have a voice in those things that
affect him or her. Ditto for everyone else. This is the very soul of justice
(and of human dignity).

2. That the cognitively disabled person have the opportunity to participate
in society to the *fullest extent of his or her ability*. Again, ditto for
everyone else.

The goal of our guidelines should NOT be to make everything accessible (this
is futile anyway), but to remove the stumbling blocks that prevent some of
us from living their lives to their fullest potential, whatever that
potential may be. Viewed in this way, it is not possible to make the mistake
of "dumbing down" the world, dragging the potentials of the most talented
down to those of the least ("leveling"). Viewed in this way, we elevate
everyone rather than crushing top and bottom to a mediocre middle.


There are issues here that demand greater discussion, especially the
potential conflict between freedom of expression and the right of others to
participate in society. I'll leave these for future posts.

I hope this makes my views a little clearer. Would that I were a bit more
eloquent... sadly, this is the best I can do. Apologies for my verbosity.

Chas. Munat
Received on Monday, 20 August 2001 06:11:03 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.1 : Tuesday, 16 January 2018 15:33:38 UTC