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RE: QED

From: Wayne Myers-Education <wayne.myers@bbc.co.uk>
Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1999 17:26:21 +0100
Message-Id: <41ED4776F432D211ACBD0000F8EF7D7A01287C7A@w12wcedxu01.wc.bbc.co.uk>
To: w3 <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
>> "David Poehlman is right about the fundamental distinction between
accessiblity and understanding;"

> But the issue here is that it is a difficulty with understanding that
makes many things inaccessible to people who have learning difficulties. 

I don't agree. Perhaps I should explain this fundamental distinction between
accessibility and understanding. Having difficulty understanding something
doesn't mean it is inaccessible. It may be badly written, it may be in a
language which you do not speak well, or it may simply be beyond the grasp
of your mental faculties. But if the apparatus with which you have accessed
the thing in question has presented it to you in a form where you have had
as much chance of understanding it as anyone, then it is accessible. It may
not be comprehensible, but that's not the same thing, and when the thing in
question is an arbitrary meme, its comprehensibility or otherwise is very
much the reader's, not the author's problem. That's not accessibility,
that's free speech.

To give an example, let's try it the other way, and say that in order to be
accessible to everyone an arbitrary meme must be understandable to everyone.
It can readily be seen that we must include in everyone the set of people
who cannot read at all in any language, which is a demonstrably extant set
of people. At this point we need to try and work out how to represent
arbitrary memes without using text - we need to map it onto whatever the
shared vocabulary (in the widest cross-language, cross-media sense) for all
human beings is, assuming (dangerously) that such a vocabulary even exists.
Without going too deeply into the ins and outs of linguistic theories of
which I know far less than others on this list, it would seem clear that
even if such a shared vocabulary exists (and it may not), we do not yet know
what it is. Suppose we did. Whatever it is, in this context, we are only
allowed to represent it with non-textual symbols. Suppose we could. Even if
it could be shown that there are some set of symbols that every human on the
planet understands in the same way - a highly unlikely state of affairs - it
is hard to imagine that there might be enough such symbols to express all
the ideas encapsulated in any arbitrary meme. Suppose there were enough such
symbols. How might one express the following idea: 'This is a concept
inexpressible in this symbol set'?

Self-evidently, you can't, because there is an internal paradox that would
lead to any given suggestion for a way of expressing that idea in that
symbol set being rejected as being untrue. Our symbol set cannot, therefore,
express all arbitrary memes, but only some large set of arbitrary memes,
with another set of memes that cannot be expressed by that symbol set;
arguing backwards, given that our premises have led us to an impossibility,
we must conclude that arbitrary memes cannot be understandable by everyone
in any given single symbol set - any such symbol set implies the existence
of a set of memes that cannot be expressed in it, and require a different
symbol set in order to express them.

But symbols don't exist in the abstract world of philosophical argument.
Symbols exist in the real world of things that you, me and my Mum either do
or don't understand. In the real world, as Jonathan has found out with his
peepo.com symbol set, as soon as you construct a set of symbols - any set of
symbols at all - you create two groups of people - those who can and cannot
decode those symbols. Depending on the use to which you intend to put those
symbols, this may be a good or a bad thing, but any given symbol set is
going to exclude that group of people who cannot comprehend it. So, our
idealised universal symbol set described above is a logical impossibility
anyway; whatever you've got, whatever it is, someone somewhere won't
understand it. You can still make sure they can access it, though. It's just
not going to help them much when they do, and anything beyond the simple
societal courtesy of ensuring that information is a comprehensible as it
needs to be  in context is simply pointless.

> I agree that the web contains specialised information that is of interest
only to other specialists and cognitive access would be beyond the ability
or inclination of the rest of us. But there is lots of other information
that people with learning difficulties would find useful. My feeling is that
providers of information to a wide audience are concerned about complexity
and would welcome guidance. The provision of such guidance may not be a
current concern of WAI but could, as you suggest, be a valued addition at
some time in the future.

As you will see from the Content Guidelines, particuarly numbers 4, 12, and
13, the provision of such guidance is indeed a current concern of the WAI.
The provision of methods to make impossible things possible are not, yet,
however, on the agenda. I fear they may never be.

Cheers etc.,

Wayne
Received on Tuesday, 8 June 1999 12:26:41 GMT

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